In the ancient Greek economy athletes were runners. Winning the footrace was the coveted prize. Our modern concept of athletics has expanded to include many recognized types of sport; but for runners, running remains the once and future king.
Forty years is a long stretch. Time and chance happen to us all. But the bonds formed between runners in their youth somehow hold firm over the years. There is more to running than speed, stride and stamina.
Such thoughts ran through my head as the notes of Haydn’s Il Distratto flowed from the car radio. Haydn composed Il Distratto — The Distracted Man — his 60th symphony, in 1774. The Heidelberg orchestra performed their rendition while I struggled to keep my eyes on the road.
It had snowed the night before — an inch of slush — and with the morning rain the highway remained somewhat slick. After two and a half hours I hit a fresh snow squall as the car descended the 1272 foot peak and slipped past the sparse grey cliffs along the upper Delaware.
For another hour I drove through swirling snow, slipstreaming behind tractor trailers with the wipers slapping against the windshield. Below Scranton the snow gave way to a wintry mix. I headed west on I-80 past freshly plowed fields, their expansive furrows limed with a dusting of snow.
Further west the mountains rose in the south like fresh-baked powdered loaves laid end to end. Reddish brown tufts of grass mingled with the dirty yellow remnant of last year’s growth along the hillsides.
Finally up ahead a familiar shape rose up from the valley floor — the Nittany Lion resting beneath a brown mountain blanket. I eased into the exit lane and headed south to Huntingdon.
One by one the members of our party arrived. That evening we assembled around a common table at Kelly’s Bar for supper and then trudged up the grassy hill in the cool night air to our rooms at the inn. The talk continued for several hours: back and forth banter, the merits of recently read books, the intricacies of a Bach fugue, and — beekeeping.
One of the more recent graduates — the son of the organizer of our weekend reunion — was slated to run the 1500 meters as an alumnus at the invitational meet the following day. He had signed up for the event but wasn’t sure if he wanted to run. It would most likely be a cold wet day on the track.
“What kind of shape are you in?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m a great shape,” he said. “That’s not the issue.”
I looked over at his father, a sub-two half miler in his prime. Then I said: “If you’re in great shape, do the run. Never mind the weather. The day will come when you wish you could stay that pace without pain.”
The other fellows nodded in agreement.
He ran the following afternoon, looking strong as he crossed the finish line.
An older fellow appeared at breakfast in the next morning, a former runner from the early 1960s. He attended college to run, he told us. He had a stellar record, winning many races from that era.
This fellow told how the 1963 Middle Atlantic XC Championships were halted just as the starter had raised his pistol overhead. A policeman bounded over the hill on horseback shouting “Stop the race — the president’s been shot!” He held up a walkie-talkie so everyone could hear the shocking news. The race was run later that day, even though a number of coaches elected to withdraw their runners.
After the conclusion of the afternoon track meet we went out for a run up the winding road to the Peace Chapel, a memorial planned by Maya Lin, the same artist who designed the Vietnam War Memorial that stands on the green in Washington, D.C. A light rain had begun to fall as we headed out. Later, back at the inn, we saw the ephemeral blush of a rainbow sweep across the eastern sky.
That evening we gathered at the home of our former running coach for a traditional Smithfield spiral-cut ham dinner. More stories were shared. One of our group — an orthopedic surgeon and his pediatrician wife — narrated a notebook slide show on their medical mission trip to Haiti last summer. Over lemon cake and ice cream another fellow shared his unlikely journey from a geologist in the Texas oil fields to graduation from dental school. Our retired military man gave us his perspective on the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We talked late into the night. Back at the inn I crawled into bed shortly after 1:00 AM.
Sunday morning we gathered at Top’s Diner for the final breakfast. The beekeeper handed out sample jars of Oxcart honey. I finished a short stack of sweet potato pancakes and took my leave, shaking everyone’s hand in turn.
It was almost like passing the peace at a church service.