Going the Distance

My head was spinning when I arrived in the Gallatin Valley one scorching August afternoon, and it wasn’t just from the heat. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a job, classes to attend, papers to write, or any semblance of structure. That morning I had driven from Helena, truck full of possessions and mind full of plans, but as I settled into a strange house in a strange town in the shadow of strange mountains, an unnerving sense of unfamiliarity came over me. I sat among my bags under a whirring ceiling fan, sweating, wondering where my roommates were. Suddenly, I knew what I must do to regain my shaken sense of purpose: go for a run.

There are few things that I do that give me more peace than running. I stumbled into the sport as a Rhode Island ninth-grader, an undersized cast-off from the baseball team. Before I knew it, I was racing cross-country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoors in the spring. I lived for the frozen mornings or muggy afternoons when our team would match strides down the parkway, exchanging mumbled phrases between breaths, pushing the pace without speaking. Even after quitting my college track team, I relied upon my running, though less frequent, to break up long study sessions or to escape my city apartment. After college, I moved to Montana to live with a good friend, excited to live in a place where, among other things, I envisioned myself running for miles on forested trails without tiring, some super-fit aesthete of Rocky Mountain splendor.

I looked out my Belgrade window, trying to remember the local roads I had just driven on in search of my apartment. Where could I run in this new place? I laced up my shoes and decided to allow curiosity to chart my course. After five minutes of stumbling through holes on the side of Frontage Road, I looked across the airport and noticed a dirt road circling it. A perfect route! I’d be really running “naturally,” off the pavement, a solitary figure outlined against cows and fields—a picture of Sillitoe’s short story, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.”

East Coast misconception number one—if you can see it, it’s not that far away. Growing up in Rhode Island, the “Small Sky State,” I grew accustomed to a field of vision limited to a quarter-mile or less. Trees, houses, or a bend in the road would inevitably block my sight, and while this enhanced the much-acclaimed “New England Coziness Factor,” it was poor preparation for the expanses of Montana. Therefore, I could only guess at the distance of the airport loop—four miles? maybe five? Certainly, it was within my limited-fitness range.

After a half-hour of running around the airport, choking on the dust of the few vehicles that passed by, I began to curse out loud. My legs and lungs ached—was there an end to this diabolical dust bowl? Where were my teammates to encourage me, or at least put the kibosh on my naïve route selection? I imagined the vacant Gallatin Speedway to be the rib cage of some behemoth horse, my mythical predecessor on this route whose vulture-ravaged remains were a portentous landmark on my death march. Seriously, I was getting delirious. Belgrade shimmered in the distant haze, and it wasn’t getting any closer.

East Coast misconception number two—wherever you go, there will be some glade of trees to provide shade. The Northeast, where not cleared for buildings, is covered with maples, oaks, birch—every kind of leafy greenness imaginable. When I went running, unless it was on a track, the wrath of the sun was never a concern.

But as the sweat burned off my bare shoulders and my tongue thickened in the cotton-cave of my mouth, it dawned on me that there had literally been zero shade on this run, the realization of which only made matters worse. My pace slowed to a plod, but turning back wasn’t an option—what if it actually was shorter to continue on, rather than backtrack? What if this road, in reality, led back to town, rather than into the burning bowels of Gehenna?

Of course, the airport road eventually carried me back to my apartment, albeit after an hour of running. My abjuration of God just a few minutes prior was withdrawn by the sweet chill of kitchen tile against my prostrate frame. I can’t say whether or not going for that run helped me to regain a sense of purpose in a strange place, but afterwards I certainly recovered any lost appreciation for ice water and a couch. Since then, I’ve stuck to more familiar routes, only after consulting a map with a legend more accurate than my surveying ability—lesson learned from my first run in Montana: home of the Big Sky and endless, sun-baked dirt roads.