Pine Cones & Brown Bears: The Things We Can See From Running

The end of my degree is fast approaching and I’m starting to think about the things that I will (and won’t) miss from university. While in time I may indeed start to miss 9am seminars, hoarding through countless books and articles late in the library, filling in footnotes on essays, and the ear-splittingly aggressive chants of the hockey girls in the union bar, it will be my time in the university’s running club that I’ll miss most.

Presiding over a sports club has had a greater emotional impact than I expected. Being a ‘figurehead’ inevitably makes one more passionate about the sport they represent, and subsequently keen to encourage others to share this enthusiasm. There has been nothing more fulfilling than seeing people show up to a first session with a pessimistic outlook, only to see them again a few weeks later, finishing the session with a smile and saying, “I’m really glad I made myself do that extra set.” Nobody probably notices the little beam of delight on my face when I hear such comments, or watch someone who originally couldn’t complete the warm up running with a new fluidity. It’s a sight that inspires me for my own running too. I’ve witnessed people do things that they originally insisted they couldn’t, simultaneously surprising myself with how much I enjoy and can cope with being a ‘leader’ of a large group. The experience has highlighted how reciprocal the psychological effects of running with others can be, regardless of age or ability.

But the great thing about encouraging others to run, and being encouraged by them, is that it doesn’t just have to take place in school or university. It can be done anywhere, including when travelling. I’m not sure I would have adapted so comfortably to my role was it not for my help-exchange experiences. It was during an evening run in Canada when I particularly learned how when it comes down to significant circumstances, anybody can take the lead.

My first homestay experience was in British Columbia, where on one evening I was asked by a mother to take her 12 year old son out for a run. Ice hockey season would be starting soon and he needed to get fit. The family lived on a farm near Shuswap Lake, which we would go swimming in with the dogs and horses. I stretched outside, admiring the melting beams of light oozing from the lowering sun onto the placid surface, until the boy appeared reluctantly. We walked down the sandy drive to the road not saying much, my comment on it being a “lovely evening for a run” provoking only a greater look of dread on the boy’s face. I didn’t know the area well at all, nor the boy’s level of fitness. Watching him swing his arms half-heartedly by his rather tubby torso, head down as he scuffed his trainers over the pine cones on the gravel, I figured we would just go for a gentle jog for a couple of miles. Cars barely touched the road that was sandwiched between dark sheets of fir trees.

The sweet smell of pine fragranced the air as we set off. A delicate humming of midges serenaded my ears, soon interrupted by the sound of the boy panting behind me. Eh oh. Was I going too fast? I didn’t think anyone had mentioned asthma..? I told him to think about his breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth – wary of sounding patronising…but also of causing my host’s son to collapse. When I glanced behind me to make sure he was still alive, a frown of concentration was etched on his face as he inhaled deeply before blowing out, his eyes fixed straight ahead of him determinedly. “Good! That’s much better,” I said encouragingly. He nodded his thanks, eyes still focused ahead. I considered trying to make conversation, only to decide it wouldn’t help with his rhythm. Occasional calls of “Keep it up!” and “You’re doing really well!” received no verbal response. And so I carried on running in front, letting the sound of pine needles crunching under my trainers entertain me instead and distract from any awkwardness.

A few painfully un-conversational minutes later, the road curved uphill slightly to the right. I had no idea where we were going but carried on regardless, staring at the grey tarmac as if it might contain chalk-written signs telling me something funny to say to lighten the mood. Suddenly the boy piped up with breathless gasps: “Okay… we should probably…start talking now… so that…the bears don’t come.” My head jerked up in alarm. Bears? Nobody had mentioned bears! The faint, innocent smell of lemon in the air suddenly became blotched with an overriding aroma of panic. But being the ‘adult’ here, I told myself I had to remain calm. I swallowed and attempted a casual, “Oh, okay,” hoping I didn’t sound too squeaky, before offhandedly suggesting we turn back. “Yeah,” the boy replied earnestly with a greater fluency of speech that seemed to reflect his new-found authority, “and you should probably run behind me now, because although I may not be too great at this long-distance stuff, I can sure run fast when I have to!”

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh as I obediently slowed to let him overtake. His sudden entrance into protective mode was adorable, providing a brief distraction from the startling issue at hand. “Oh I’m sure we’ll be fine, but yeah, good idea,” I said in a confident tone, before immediately casting a fleeting look over my shoulder at the pine trees to the side. “If you see anything, just follow me,” the boy instructed, as I just avoided stepping on his heels after another cautious glance behind me. I asked him about school and his interests, the words ‘bear bear bear’ running through my mind in time with my quickening footsteps. As he explained the rules of ice hockey to me, I tried to decide which would sound better: ‘I’m really sorry, but your son had a cardiac arrest’, or, ‘I’m really sorry, but your son got mauled by a bear’. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

But gradually through maintaining conversation I became more relaxed and the frequency of anxious peeks over my shoulder decreased. While I would continue to encourage him with desperate utterances of “That’s it, pick up those feet!” and “Doing great!”, he would puff “Almost there,” over his sagging shoulders, which would rise again resolutely every time I urged him on.

The sense of urgency caused the boy’s running to pick up immensely. We arrived back at the bottom of the drive exhausted from our mad dash, the boy bending over double puffing away. ‘He must hate me,’ I thought to myself as I wiped the sweat off my brow. But when he stood up straight, spread across his face was a grin of both relief and pride. “It’s true, you can run fast when you have to!” I remarked teasingly, and I held my hand up for a high five. The boy returned it, sealing what became the beginning of a great ‘brother-sister’ relationship for the remainder of my stay. I felt proud of him, knowing that he probably hadn’t run that fast for such a distance before. And I felt proud of myself too. Having never had a younger brother, just trying to persuade an unfit lad to keep running whilst being responsible for his welfare was a new enough experience, before the small matter of bears came up.

Being in a position of responsibility had made me act more calmly than I probably would have if alone, simply because I felt a duty of care to someone; a sense of duty that would have appeared with any child. And at the same time, the young boy had adopted a protective persona that disguised his real fear, feeling that it was his duty to take charge because of knowing the area best, and because of this belief that, as the male, he should look out for the female guest.  A true little gent. Or at least I thought so until it occurred that he’d organised things so that I would be the first to be eaten…

This memory is what always comes to my mind when people ask how I can enjoy running so much. It can do so much for human relations, mainly because of the various contexts in which it can take place. Everyone knows that marathon runners form great friendships because all share a sense of accomplishment, which they have achieved having helped one another get through the process. But this effect of running doesn’t only come from huge distances or competitive settings. In this instance, the boy and I had become closer through a shared sense of fear, with the act of running helping to bring us together through our mutual support and dependence. Someone comparing the before-and-after scenes at the bottom of the drive couldn’t have failed to notice how paradoxical they were, following just 20 minutes of running. I’ve continued to see such sights whilst training with my university team mates.

It only really hit me recently that there probably wasn’t actually any real danger of being chased by a bear – it was perhaps a rumour that the boy’s young, gullible mind had believed. Or maybe he had even made it up so we could head back early, thinking that the girl with bright blonde hair and a funny accent would probably fall for it. But even if that was what happened, I’m glad for it, because of how much the experience helped me get the most out of running while at university. I’ll truly miss walking out of Regents Park with stories and special moments to look back on from the training session, but if I keep running, I know that there will be so many more of these to come.

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5 thoughts on “Pine Cones & Brown Bears: The Things We Can See From Running

  1. Pingback: Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park | soleseeking

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