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Rants from the Hill: Running into winter

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Michael Branch | Mar 15, 2011 10:50 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

When my father-in-law’s sixtieth rolled around we got together as a family and asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Without hesitating he replied, “I want you all to run a half marathon with me.” To this proposal I responded as would any supportive person who cares deeply about honoring an important birthday wish: “No, seriously, what do you really want?” Assured of the unhappy news that he was serious, I pointed out that the farthest I have run since age fourteen is from my computer to my beer fridge. Indeed, the fact that I have a beer fridge may help you to gauge my level of interest in distance running. I also observed that, from an evolutionary point of view, running only makes sense if one is chasing or being chased. He responded that since I was certain to do very poorly I would have the opportunity to chase all 6,999 other participants. My motivation would thus be to avoid coming in last. This did seem a compelling incentive, but still I resisted, this time telling my father-in-law that while he is a full-blooded Okie, running is rather a yuppie activity--unless one is running to nab a possum for the stewpot. Entirely unpersuaded, he ended the conversation by genially characterizing my arguments as “the sophistry of the chickenshitted.”

Unfortunately for my wife and daughters, I have matured very little since age 16, when I dove off a 90-foot cliff because another kid made chicken sounds at me. So if I told you that the joke about the redneck whose last words are “Hey, y’all, watch this!” was written about me, you’d guess correctly that despite my lack of experience, interest, motivation, or fitness, I ran that half marathon. And while three or four thousand people did cross the finish line before me, including a bunch of Girl Scouts, an 86-year-old woman, a really friendly guy in a wheelchair, and, of course, my father-in-law, I eventually crossed too. I was soon surfing a fat endorphin buzz, drinking a lot of free beer, and reveling in the fact that I was demonstrably not a chicken--and it wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet. In that moment I experienced a disconcerting realization: I actually liked running.

Why disconcerting? Those of you who follow these Rants know that the landscape of my home in the 6,000-foot hills of the western Great Basin desert is extreme and unforgiving. It is a hard place simply to live, never mind run. Summers are hot and dusty, spring and fall can happen in the time it takes to fetch a whiskey, and the wind howls all year around. But it is winter that makes running here almost inconceivable. I’ve seen it snow every month of the year except July and August, and it is common to have snow on the ground from November through March. Before my half marathon euphoria even subsided I had already begun to wonder if in becoming a runner I had started something the high desert would never let me finish.

As the snows of winter buried my hopes as a runner, I began to despair. The temperature of my cabin fever ran higher than usual, and even snowshoeing didn’t do much for my morale. Finally, in a despondent fit I remembered a Danish maxim that had been shared with me by the Norwegian wife of a Swedish friend in Finland: “Det er ingenting som daarligt vejr, det er kun daarlige paaklaedning.” While these words of wisdom look on the page as if they might translate as “Those who ingest some dark beer, will eat their blackest hairy goat,” it apparently means “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just being badly dressed for it.” Perhaps I was simply ill equipped! Certainly there must be runners in other parts of the world who had conquered the challenge I now faced. I had a Nevada problem, but I needed a Nordic solution. Research led me to the “Icebug,” a studded running shoe developed in Sweden by Peter Öberg and Erik Öhlund, guys whose impressive athleticism, self-described “freakish interest in shoes,” and names with umlauts were precisely the credentials I sought. The ad copy suggesting that I’d soon be streaking across ice seemed sanguine, but I was desperate, and so I placed my order and waited for the experiment to arrive.

Icebug bootsMy first midwinter run up into the Silver Hills was among the most memorable experiences of my life. I dressed for the occasion, laced up the black Icebugs--which more closely resembled Medieval torture devices than running shoes--and headed out hopefully into the snow. My route would be up the BLM canyon road into the white hills above, my destination a perennial spring in a wintry valley at about 7,000 feet. I had read that the shoes worked best on compacted snow or ice, and I knew that my neighbor, Ludde, had already been up the canyon road on his chained-up ORV, breaking trail to give his ten dogs a slot in which to run. And so I took off, laboring uphill through the snowbanks, following the track made by Ludde and his pack of pointers. The further I ran the better I felt, my growing elation inspired by the feeling that the tools on my feet had opened my high home hills in an entirely new way. The glistening gates of winter swung upon before me, and I experienced a satisfying sense that snow would never hold me prisoner again.

Having run three or four miles up to the spring, I paused there to drink, and to admire my looming home mountain, whose massive, snow-covered crest was etched against the cobalt western sky. The tips of bitterbrush, ephedra, and sage protruded from the drifts here and there. A pair of glossy ravens appeared on cue, slicing black over palisades of white granite on a nearby ridgeline. Then I tightened the laces on the black Icebuggies and began running down the mountain. The further I ran the more I trusted the crazy shoes, and with that trust came comfort, and with comfort speed, and with speed the return of that species of exhilaration that is unique to running. I was alone in the total silence of the high desert hills, and I was streaking downhill on naked ice, dropping toward home through a sinuous slot in an unbroken wilderness of snow. It was my apotheosis as a runner. I felt effortlessly strong, agile, and swift--exactly like a pronghorn, I thought at the time. In reality I was of course graceless, panting, and running 54 miles per hour more slowly than a pronghorn, but no matter. In that brief and shining moment, drunk on endorphins and desert light, my studded, winged heels had made me the Mercury of Silver Hills.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Icebug photo courtesy -- who else? -- Norwegian Flickr member Ole Husby.

Steve Waclo
Steve Waclo
Mar 15, 2011 05:16 PM
Thanks for yet another entertaining blog entry! Some day you'll need to tell the entire story of the 90 foot cliff dive. I trust you survived :-). Be safe running on those icy trails. Perhaps a running companion is in order although I despair there are many in your neighborhood who would fit the bill:-).

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