Friday, April 5, 2013

Answering the Call of the Wild

"Old longings nomadic lap, Chafing at custom's chain
Again from its brumal sleep, Wakens the ferine strain."
– John Myers O’Hara
Jack London's 1903 classic The Call of the Wild is a story of a courageous dog named Buck who is forced to fight for survival on the trail in the Alaskan wilderness. As Buck is ripped from his pampered surroundings and shipped north to be a sled dog in the last frontier, his primitive, wolf-like nature begins to emerge and he undertakes a mystic journey that transforms him into the legendary "Ghost Dog" of the Klondike. I can remember reading this tale as a child, but only now, after recently re-discovering it as an adult, can I truly appreciate the meaning behind Buck’s metamorphosis. It also got me thinking about why we runners are drawn to the sport we love and how we’ve all been changed by it.

“Buck lived at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. And over this great demesne Buck ruled. …for he was king--king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included. During the four years since his puppy hood he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.” – Jack London

In general, our culture has grown soft, like Buck, in our own pampered environs of sport-utilities, lazy-boys, and remotes. Most of today’s modern conveniences have been specifically designed to promote inactivity and suppress the athlete within all of us. However, unlike Buck, we weren’t forcibly removed from our comfort zone. We made a conscious decision to change our otherwise static situation. Whether it’s to get in back shape, to keep up with our kids, or for some other profound reason, we have all committed ourselves to running in one way or another.

"Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors) quickened and became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down.” – Jack London 

Running is one of the most basic human acts. It’s the Flee in our “Fight or Flee” instinct (although racing can be a little bit of both). The concept is deeply ingrained in our genetic make-up. Our ancestors ran to escape enemies, chase game and travel the land. Well before Fed-Ex and the fax machine, our forefathers used running as a means of quick communication. Swift couriers could carry valuable information from tribe to tribe over great distances. And, who could forget dear Philippides? His 26.2 mile journey from Marathon to Athens, proclaiming the Greek victory over Persia, marked the beginning of a running obsession that many of us can call our own.

“His development (or retrogression) was rapid. His muscles became hard as iron, and he grew callous to all ordinary pain. He achieved an internal as well as external economy. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.” – Jack London

Running causes a kind of metamorphosis to occur. We are slowly transformed by forces from without and within. As we run, we develop our muscles and exercise our minds. We learn that we can push our bodies further than we could have ever imagined. Running awakens the animal in us. It turns us into efficient creatures that are sleek, strong, and sometimes mean. Running empowers us with the feeling of flight. It lifts our exultant spirit up to touch the face of generations that came before and fills us with the sheer joy of life.

“… each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” – Jack London

In today’s high-tech age the ever increasing noise from cell phones
and i-Pads, TV’s and PC’s tends to drown out the call of the wild. It’s still there, but the signal is weak. It’s that faint echo existing in the background that we runners have heard and responded to. Many find that the call is stronger as we get closer to nature. Trail running can be the purest and most natural form of running. No cars, no asphalt, no street signs, no curbs. Just the inherently cool air of the forest and the forgiving cushion of the path.

"But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called -- called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come." – Jack London

Try experiencing a run in the woods with only the barest of necessities. Just sneakers (barefoot would be nice, but let’s not get too carried away), and shorts (your loincloth), or jog bra (sorry ladies) are enough to suffice. Leave your GPS, watch and heart rate monitor at home. It’s just you and the beating of your primordial heart to mark the time. Your foot falls are quick and light. You are a silent harrier effortlessly moving up the trail. In the woods you are but a lone wolf, gliding through the trees with the steady strong rush of breathing as your only companion. In the woods, howling is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!

“But Buck is not always alone. When the long winter nights come on… he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.” – Jack London

If running with the pack is more your style, the weekly Gate City Strider trail workouts might be just the thing for you. On Wednesday nights, runners of every ability gather at Nashua High South and run together on the trails through Mine Falls Park. If you feel compelled to challenge your own inner “Buck”, the they also hold a weekly 5k & 5m Summer Trail Race Series at Mine Falls every Monday night from June through August. Or, you can run the aptly named Jack London 10k Trail Race held in early November every year. So,  come on out and join us for what is sure to be a “howling” good time. As always, the GPS is optional. The shorts, however, are not!

“… the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we have promises to keep and miles to run before we sleep, and miles to run before we sleep.” – Robert Frost (sort of)

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