The spell began to break with the distant whirring of a plane’s engine. Still, as the light from my headlamp reflected off the flakes of the season’s first significant snowfall, I found myself in awe. How long had I been standing there listening to the snow? Thirty seconds? Two minutes? Longer? My watch buzzed, stirring me from my wonder and reminding me that I had been gone an hour. It was time to make my way home. . . .
What does it take to bring 300 runners out on a cold Friday night, in the middle of December, 99 percent of them not sporting form-fitting tights or a technical t-shirt? A movie about running, of course (although if you had reasoned free food, that would be completely understandable).
On December 13, I and many other runners attended a screening of Joel Wolpert’s film In the High Country (a movie filmed largely at 14,000 feet above sea level) at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theater (which sits literally on the sea). Trail Animals Running Club stalwart (and my sometimes travel and racing companion) Michael Tommie McDuffie organized the screening, and as he introduced the film, he eloquently explained that there seem to be two types of running: the kind we practice individually, moving within a landscape and our bodies and minds; and the kind that brings us into a larger community of runners.
Often our larger community only comes together at races, a very distinct form of communion, so seeing a huge number of friends “out of context” and being reminded of this communal spirit was as distinct a pleasure as the film itself. (Honestly, there were a couple of people I had to do double-takes to recognize with their hair coiffed and jeans on!) It had all the great energy of a race, minus the nerves and anxiety about the task at hand. People were there simply to enjoy each other’s company and the IMAX’s massive screen, which, despite the fact that the movie was not in true IMAX-size, from where I sat in the first row definitely made the film’s two stars (the Rocky Mountains and Anton Krupicka) seem larger than life.
In the High Country is, ostensibly, about the epic runs and journeys that Tony takes. Journeys that easily spark envy in runners—high mountain summits and alpine lakes, sinewy single track, an onlooker marvelling, as the runner crests the summit, “Did you run up here?” The film inspires a sense of wanderlust, that sense of freedom and adventure that a new trail, or route up a mountain, can inspire. Yet the film drives home a deeper point, a point espoused by both the filmmaker and star. It does not seem that Tony reaches for a summit simply, as George Mallory stated about climbing Everest, “because it’s there.” The drive to run to these peaks is more about the desire to find one’s place in the physical landscape—to feel a part of the physical world, to feel familarity in the practice of being exposed to it, and still be awed by its changing colors, seasons, and temperaments. In essence, to connect and feel at home.
Before the screening, a number of Trail Animals took Tony on a tour of the Blue Hills, just south of Boston. Between skyline views and hopping ice, the conversation ranged from trends in running gear, to our group’s oddly color-coordinated attire, to training methods, to race plans for the coming year, to our collective addiction to electronic devices and media, to if said addiction is altering our neural pathways, thus making us less intelligent, to the remedy for such devolution (it was agreed that running in the woods is a fine place to start!), to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This is Water.” In this speech, Wallace suggests that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” And this is what In the High Country drove home for me. A connection to place does not necessitate the grandest vista or the steepest climbs. It necessitates a choice in each of us to be aware enough to notice the landscape, be it physical or human, and to choose how we will experience this, both externally and internally.
. . . . Sixty minutes ago, I dreaded this experience. I’d been fighting a cold all week. Inside, it was warm. Outside, the thermometer read 14 degrees. I could use the rest. Did I really want to wear a headlamp? But I donned my gear and headed into the building tempest. On the trails, each turn felt familiar, but new, with hard-packed snow from earlier in the week remaking the landscape. The fresh snow changed the path even within the hour I was in the woods.
I was not standing on some remote peak, above the clouds. I was in a 120-acre parcel of conservation land, just minutes from my door. As I began running again, noises brought me back to my neighborhood. A snow blower clearing a driveway. A pickup, plow attached, its diesel engine rumbling to life. Two kids laughing in their yard. My footsteps making that perfectly muffled sound that only the first slight layer of snow can create. Forty-two seconds from where the trail meets the road, I’m home.