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When I run, I often become aware of the sound of my footsteps in rhythm with my inhale, exhale. This settles my mind. Thoughts are clarified with the motion. The rhythm creates a foundation for the music of my mind’s meanderings.

But my thoughts during my physical excursions are often as ephemeral as the morning dew. If I don’t capture the thought right then, it is gone. If I have a pen in my running belt, I will jot down snippets of thoughts on the palm of my hand.

On those occasions, the hieroglyphics that remained have become mostly inscrutable, but I translate as best I can. Anything to retrieve the creative resource that I had accessed during my run.

Let me unravel some of the story behind my running.

My first memories of running involve my father. In his early 40s he embraced the pursuit of running with the dedication of Sisyphus. Each day after work he would head to the ancient YMCA in our humble town of Lima, Ohio.

He would don his tennis shoes, a cotton T-shirt and a pair of cotton gym shorts. He would then climb the stairs to the top of the poorly lit gymnasium. The dark-brick gym in our industry-heavy city had only a few small windows covered with metal grating. There he would begin his dizzying laps around the banked wooden track that hugged the walls above the basketball court.

Each mile was eight laps around that track and each mile was dutifully noted on a chart on the wall for all to see. I imagine that he must have approached his 8- to 10-mile jog with the enthusiasm of a caged animal.

What motivated my father? The future might have held a promise of greater fitness for him or perhaps just the further extending line on the wall chart showing miles covered, a reflection of a determination and single-mindedness that others might take note of. In a years’ time he marked 1,000 miles around that track and later he was the only member of the 5,000-mile run club at that YMCA.

This culminated in the grand event of running, the 1968 Boston marathon. After finishing that race, he had exhausted his interest in this pursuit and moved on to attain other goals. That was his nature, to devour his pursuits with passion and commitment until he had exhausted them.

Then he could look up and scan the horizon before him to identify his next pursuit. That devotion intrigued me, but I had a different trajectory, a different motivation. I viewed the sport with a mixture of fascination and incredulity; fascination that someone could run such distances as a marathon or farther and incredulous that they would even want to.

But I was a teenager then, occupied with the distractions of youth and had yet to discover the value of exploring my limitations, of seeking self-discovery without a practical purpose. That would be the definition of play.

As with play, so with running for me. One can run with the same attitude that seeks the dark gymnasium track or with the attitude of the child in play. Regardless of the attitude, it seems clear to me that whether walking or running, we are designed to move.

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And nothing is required to engage in the act of running beyond the earth beneath the feet and a body that is able, not even shoes if one so chooses. As a sport there is no advantage to the privileged in running.

From some of the poorest of countries come the greatest runners, perhaps, in part, because of fewer distractions that so occupy our culture. In this way, simplicity may be an advantage on lessons of the spirit.

The Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon in Mexico have integrated running into the lifeblood of their culture. This is a culture with very little in the way of worldly goods. When the Tarahumara Indians run, they run in the traditional attire of serape and Huarachi sandals. These sandals are typically made from discarded tires for the soles, secured by leather bindings.

In a trip to the United States to compete in the famed Leadville 100, a century race in Colorado, and while bringing attention to the specter of starvation that threatens their people, they were given high-tech running shoes to improve their performance. But these shoes were discarded at mile 20 in preference to the sandals that they had crafted from a local landfill the day before.

They went on to place first, second and fifth, even though the idea of racing is a bit odd for them: for them running is more a form of play than the means to an end. In running games, they often run for days at a time, distances that we might hear of and dismiss as unimaginable. It seems other worldly and I believe that it is.

Certainly it would require a different state of mind and that may be the attraction. But if it were pure drudgery, as we might think, would it be such an integral part of their culture?

Mark James is a 30-year resident of Flagstaff. He started running 40 years ago in Eugene, Oregon, and continues to enjoy running on the trails around town. In Part II next week, he will explore the pain and cleansing of distance running.

Myles Schrag ( is coordinating editor for High Country Running.


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