Arbitrary Events

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Guest blog by Gary Cattarin

There’s something inexplicably attractive about borders and edges, both physical and logical. Admit it. How many of you have visited Key West and not gone to that street corner with the odd nautical marker that claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States (never mind that it’s on an island, not a continent, and there are clearly some rocks below the monument that stretch further southward to the water). Yep, done it, and also did South Point in Hawaii, and even the end of the odd spit of land that sticks out from Canada into Lake Ontario, which isn’t the southernmost bit of anything other than the odd spit of land it sits on. But this isn’t about points of land or southernmost things, it’s about arbitrary designations in general, and the pleasure we derive (at least us OCD types) from reaching and crossing them. And I’ve had a couple of them of late, all of them arbitrary, all of them enjoyable.

Probably the easiest of recent oddities to make sound somewhat sane was crossing the milestone of twenty thousand miles. It’s a cool round number, very big to some people, embarrassingly small to others, but interesting enough. It came about on a trail run and of course warranted a selfie at the moment of momentous mileage, after which it was rapidly forgotten and the slow slog began to what I hope will become thirty thousand (admittedly, I’ll probably first take note when the total equals the circumference of the Earth, which again only a nerd can find cool and interesting).

But really, who cares? It’s not true that I ran my twenty-thousandth mile that day. There were thousands in my youthful days, never accurately totaled, being the days before God invented spreadsheets. Further, pages vanished from those early years’ paper logs to discreetly disguise days when running log turned more toward diary. Let’s face it, youthful musings, even when mixed with youthful miles, sometimes didn’t need to be preserved. In short, there’s no accounting for, well, days when there was no accounting. And besides, even I can’t truly accurately log every stride. So this claim of the ground I’ve covered since the start of the second lap, is entirely arbitrary, and that’s before we even get to the arbitrariness of English units of measure themselves. But hey, twenty thousand miles is worth noting. And that arbitrary event came a mere forty-eight hours after another one of a different sort.

A few years ago I set out on a quest to run every mile of every street in my city. Partly it was a way to overcome the winter blues and partly it was just plain nerdy – in short, right up my alley. But it raises an interesting question: what’s the value in running in different places? The alternative, taken to extreme, would be to circle the track – the same track – for every mile of every run ever (actually the true extreme would be life on a treadmill, the same treadmill, and plenty of people do this…I pity them). Clearly that’s not a very interesting way to go through life, so we mix it up, one route one day, another then next. It’s a short leap then to start looking to seeing the world on foot. Indeed just today I had the pleasure of adding three more to my list of Massachusetts towns in which I’ve run, having spent a few hours on the truly lovely Mass Central Rail Trail with one of my local running buds. His idea to head west to this gem (for which I thank him) delivered a delightful route and a change of scenery. I think we can all see the value in that.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a fifty-stater marathon tourist, I respect what they’re doing. I just do it on the cheap, using opportunistic runs rather than dedicated trips. That’s not to say I haven’t hauled off to some distant races, but it’s not a habit directed at the states themselves. But if I find myself somewhere I haven’t run, I’ll try to change that status. So while I’ve set foot in forty-nine states, I had, until a few days back, run in only twenty-four of them, when I found myself in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d already run in North Carolina. Ah, but not South Carolina.

But I had no rental car, and it was a good eight miles from hotel to the border. And I had no time, this being a twenty-four-hour business trip, for a sixteen-miler – really more, since stepping over the border and stepping back wouldn’t really constitute a good faith effort of running in the state. Time to get creative, and times like these are when you appreciate having fitness-oriented co-workers. When you propose something a little odd, but targeted at a good workout, they tend to get it. They understand that things like that can be big motivators for fitness commitments.

As it worked out, one of my teammates – importantly, the one with the car – was big into Cross-Fit. Cross-Fitters, it seems, are as rabidly dedicated to their workouts as are nerdy OCD runners. So just wait for the right moment…and…sure enough, said teammate mentioned wanting to find a ‘box’, as they call their gyms, for a workout in the morning. I love a person who agrees that a hotel fitness room and its pathetic treadmill is simply not an acceptable form of exercise, barring dire circumstances. Cool. So, um, what’s the chance you can find a box that happens to be south of here? Play it cool, play it gently, then lay it on…because I’d like to run into the next state. Done properly, this sounds entirely rational to a fitness-oriented type. Cross-Fit Boy was on-board.

Meeting schedules, time zones, seasons, and route logistics found me the next morning being dropped a half-hour before sunrise on a pitch-black side street off a major arterial road in a part of the world I’d never set foot in, carrying only a scrap of paper with some route scrawlings – should my memory fail me – and Cross-Fit Boy’s cell phone number. Not that I had a phone to call him on. And he hadn’t even dropped me at his gym, as that would have added more distance than time allowed, so I’d have to find my way to that gym sight unseen, or he’d have no way to find me.

One might easily find this to be entirely absurd, and it was, but it worked.

The Carolinas are not particularly runner-friendly states. Once off the heavily beaten paths, which are equipped only with leg-crushing concrete sidewalks, few roads have shoulders. And like a fool, I hadn’t considered darkness when packing my bags (out of practice from winter lack-of-daylight mode I guess) and had no lights, let alone bright clothing. Moron. So each approaching car drove me off-road onto the hopefully non-ankle-turning dewy grass, hampering progress.

But my timing was stellar, or perhaps just lucky. As the pre-dawn light made turned navigation considerably simpler, I crossed the unmarked border and kicked the clicker to twenty-five. Sticking to my good-faith rule that this had to be more than an in-and-out, I ticked off a couple miles inside the border – certainly not in a very scenic area unless you find corporate distribution centers to be particularly pleasing vistas – before turning back to the north and executing the plan to find that gym – without even needing to reference that scrap of parchment.

Does it matter that I ran a couple miles in state number twenty-five? Well, what kind of story would there be to tell if I’d just hit the treadmill in the hotel? However you choose to motivate yourself, go and make yourself some stories to tell – even if it takes entirely arbitrary events to do so.

Congrats to Gary on hitting that milestone! Follow him along at The Second Lap.

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