Wednesday, May 4, 2011

About Time

I recently heard a debate on French radio about how our perception of time changes as we age and how, in our modern societies, we've forgotten the pleasure of taking our time. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, we should make the most out of the present, because it's so short.
I thought about it while running with my dog in our local park last Saturday, upon arriving at my favorite portion of the trail. The place is surrounded by evergreen trees that crack in the wind in a whiny complaint. The ground is covered with a layer of dry pine needles that cushion every footstep and muffle the stamping. My mutt Gatsby and I were alone, unless you count birds.

(Gatsby leading at the start of the trail on a sunny weekend.)

It was a delightful moment that made me appreciate the value of time shared with a four-legged running companion -- until I started to get frustrated, because Gatsby was slowing down, sniffing around and making frequent pit stops.
The evergreen-tree part of the course comes about halfway in the 6-mile loop. After setting a perky pace and trouncing me through steep uphill and downhill sections of the trail, my 1 1/2 year old dog usually slows down after a mile or two. When the temperature is warm, like last Saturday, I give him water just before an easy and flattish portion. That's usually when he stops leading the pace, and drops to my level. By the time we reach the pine trees, he's behind, seemingly dragging his (four) feet.

I remember a rule from my parents about running with dogs: they should always be ahead of you. But I also have enough experience running with Gatsby now to know that he's capable of running faster and longer. He can sprint when he spots another dog, and back home after what I imagine being a long run for him, he bounces around full of energy and wants me to play tug of war with him. Gatsby just likes to take his time, sniff and -- more often than I'd like for a dog -- eat grass. He makes the most of the present.

(Gatsby prefers to walk on steep uphill sections: ``Dude, why the haste? I think I'm gonna eat some grass.")

Most runners have a clock in their head. Even though trail runs with Gatsby are supposed to be relaxed and fun, I can't help thinking about the missed opportunity of pushing a bit harder. I'm thinking about the entry I'll make in my daily running log: 6 miles of trail run, about 1h30, or an average of 15 minutes a mile -- almost twice my so-called easy pace on a road. The best way for me to appreciate a ``Gatsby run'' is to run first alone, at my own pace, before taking him to the woods. The flip side is that when I run alone on the trails, and my thighs burn in the steepest portions, I miss Gatsby -- my only excuse for slowing down.
On Sunday, I ran about 17 miles, came back home and took Gatsby back to the trails. Of course, he decided to lead longer and faster than usual. On the first uphill, as I was panting and trying to keep up with him, he looked back at me with what seemed like a smile, as if to say: ``Enjoying this yet? This is what you did to me yesterday.'' In the evening, as I told my husband that we went for a run, he asked:
``I thought you said you'd go for a walk with him.''
``I can't walk,'' I answered.

(``What do you mean,  `carry your own water'? Do I look like a donkey?'')

I have a great time with Gatsby on the trails, and I think my urge to run doesn't mean I can't enjoy the present. But my dog is teaching me something. All along, I thought I was training him to be a good running companion -- maybe without a leash some day. I've got a plan for him, slowly increasing his mileage (as long as he likes it) to make him stronger and better. In fact, he might be training me to take my time, for once.

It was also about time I updated my blog. My last entry was Feb. 8: Time flies. In the interim, I suffered from a calf injury, was forced to cut my mileage to a minimum for three months and wasn't able to participate in the Boston Marathon, where the Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai made history by running the fastest marathon ever in 2h03. While I was injured, the time to recovery seemed an eternity. Looking back now that I can run again, it doesn't seem that long. My perception of time has changed.
It's about to change more, as I spend time running with my dog. The woman who rescued Gatsby from a kill-shelter in North Carolina named him after a novel that touches upon the theme of time and nostalgia.
"In two weeks it'll be the longest day in the year... Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."
``The Great Gatsby.'' F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(Self-portrait with the Great Gatsby in the woods)

(Post-running stretch: as usual, Gatsby steals my towel.)

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