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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts


I was sitting around after a workout the other day chatting with another runner about various places we liked to run and the subject of the canal path came up. The path along side the Erie canal is popular with lots of runners, but we both had a slightly unusual reason for enjoying it: the sound. The segment of the canal path between the villages of Pittsford and Fairport is composed of a fine cinder/gravel mix and, aside from being an easy-on-the-joints alternative to asphalt or concrete, it makes a really nice sound as you run on it.

Skrunch, scrunch, skrunch.

This started me thinking about the sounds of running.

The canal path skrunch is particularly nice early in the morning when the sun's barely risen and the world is just waking up. There's almost no distant traffic noise and just a few birds twittering in the trees. I'm alone with my thoughts and the rhythmic skrunch, skrunch, skrunch-ing of my own footsteps. It's a reassuring sort of sound that makes me feel as if the world knows I'm running along its surface and that it feels as good about it as I do.

I've been on runs on which I've come upon birds and other wild animals that didn't know I was there until I was almost on top of them. I ran along completely unaware of them too, until startled by the sudden flap of wings or the scurrying of feet and the rustle of underbrush.

Sometimes as I'm passing under or near a bridge a lone car will go by with its tires whooshing on the concrete or whirring on the steel grate of the bridge. Usually this just serves to punctuate, rather than break, the silence and somehow leaves an even deeper quiet in its wake.

Once I was running a 10k in which a runner just behind me had the most amazingly annoying footfall: splap! splap! splap! It sounded as if he was running in swim fins (I didn't look to check). It just about drove me crazy in the first mile. At that point I decided I couldn't take it any more and picked up my pace just so I wouldn't have to listen to him any more. That was the first 10k in which I broke 40 minutes and I partly owed my P.R. that day to Mr. Swim-Fin-Foot.

Another sound that I notice regularly in races is breathing, my own and that of runners around me. I'm often amazed at how hard other runners are breathing, both those I pass ("why's he running this pace if it's so hard for him?") and those who pass me ("how can he go so fast when he sounds like he's more tired than I am?"). When I'm running long and hard I often concentrate on my own breathing to help me focus. Breathing connects us with life and the sound is a reminder of that connection.

The voices of other runners in a group is a pleasant and reassuring sound. The snippets of overheard conversation at the beginning of a run, slowly falling silent as we climb a steep hill. The chatter after the run as we have coffee and muffins and discuss recent races or whatever. A sudden burst of laughter at someone else's remark. You don't even need to be able to pick out any of the words to sense the warmth and comraderie.

Some runners don't get to appreciate any of this. My friend Mark Harrison is deaf and many times being with him has made me profoundly aware of how much I listen to the world around me when I run. Once was on a hilly road early in the morning (always the best time of day). We were far out in the country and the sun was still very low on the horizon. Every time we ran into the dazzling sunrise over the crest of a hill or around a curve I thought about the fact that the only way I'd be aware of an oncoming car would be by hearing it.

Another time we set off on a 20-mile training run with a large group of runners. Mark and I were the fastest present that day but he was quite a bit faster than me at the time. We ran together for a couple of miles before I let him pull ahead. Then he went straight past a road where we were supposed to turn. I sprinted to catch up with him and pointed out the way. We turned around and got back on course and I let him pull away once more...until the next turn, at which he did the same thing again. So I repeated the sprint-and-catch-up routine, much to the amusement of those following us. When this happened a third time (at which point those still within sight behind us were really enjoying the show), it was apparent that he didn't remember the route we had planned, so I ended up going the whole distance with him and running much harder than I'd intended.

Perhaps getting away from sounds is one of the things that's so nice about running. None of us would like to go through life without good hearing, like Mark Harrison has to; it's partly because of what we do hear most of the time that makes the relative silence of a long run refreshing. Sounds are so often used as reminders of jobs, duties and obligations: The buzz of an alarm clock or the honk of a car horn. The ring of the phone or the ding! that tells you you have email and someone expects you to do something for them. A good run lets you get away from all that for a while and soothes your ears with the gentle sound of your own feet and the rhythmic music of running.

Skrunch, skrunch, skrunch.

Copyright © 1999 Mark Roberts

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