By Jim Bonds
My little piggies feel like they are in a barn on fire. But that’s ok; I’m running solo at dawn with the purple blue breaking through the black over my head and between the twisted oak and popular limbs. I see stars. I have been running almost an hour. Prince comes over from Peachtree City to Vulcan Materials for conferences and meetings and we run this route down Lakeshore beside Shades Creek, past Sanford University’s big iron gates, through the willows and down to Mountain Brook. The last time we ran Prince said my running motion, stride or whatever you call it is “wacky.”
“Man you have a slappy stride.”
I worked at Slappy telecommunications for a while, as a contract programmer. I don’t know how that would have anything to do with my stride. But Prince declares that I have a “slappy stride,” I keep thinking about this while I’m keeping an eye on the dawn that’s creeping into the purple down at the bottom edge of the sky. There is a hint of red in it – sailors warning.
Over the last few times we have run together Prince has said things like “People can hear you coming for miles around.” How do you tolerate the noise” “You’re damaging the pavement.” “Waking up dogs, making birds fly” “scaring babies”
These and similar comments are rolling through my mind. I have taken Prince’s comments constructively though: I went to Google did the research.
Here is what it said:
“Running is the product of both stride length and stride rate. At any given pace, everyone has a stride that’s best for them, which is usually the most comfortable.”
Screw that. Whoever said that running 15 miles was comfortable anyway? And how does Prince know what stride is right for me? Maybe Prince does run with the most elite ultramarathoners in the southeast–the Darksiders–and has read every book on marathoning, running and exercising and exotic offshoot topics including running yoga and prayer breathing; but that doesn’t mean he knows everything. Still, I have this haunting thought; I may never become an ultra distance runner until I have the proper stride. I can’t shake it. My stride is Wacky, slappy, sloppy or whatever–malformed, contorted even deadly. Hey I’m not Cinderella or Isadora Duncan, I’m not a sissy, prissy or a wimp–I’m not exactly tiptoeing through the tulips.
In fact I am grinding out the miles–and I am doing it in a manner that is manly, sure and firm. People that see me from their cars give me the thumbs up!
Several months later Prince and I are walking across the parking lot at Oak Mountain State Park. It’s a 50K trail run and I’m going to have some questions answered about stride and running motion, distances and endurance, and running efficiency. These questions are going to be answered soon and definitively. Not by Prince. I’m going to a higher authority. I am going to Scott Ludwig.
If you’re a regular reader of “Absolutely True Tales from the Darkside” I don’t need to give you Scott Ludwig’s biography. But if you found this newsletter in a dentist’s office, chiropractor’s office, brake shop, palm readers or fortune teller’s waiting room or on a side table by one of those egg-shaped hair dryers in a beauty parlor and you don’t know who Scott Ludwig is, I will tell you.
Let me start by saying I have never actually met Scott Ludwig. But that’s beside the point. I know a lot about him because I know a lot about the Darkside Running club. To get some Idea of the stature of the man let me say it like this. In their respective fields some individuals distinguish themselves. Scott is such a man. He is much beloved in his hometown of Peachtree City, Georgia and other places where runners ply their neighborhoods and talk of feats of runners extraordinaire. Let’s just say that Scott is to the ultramarathon as Frank Sinatra is to crooning or Davy Crockett is to camping. It’s nothing for him to run 50 miles in one day and turn around and run a marathon the next day. Talk about the “Badwater” 135 miles in 36 hrs – like taking candy from a baby. Reciting stories about Scott can advance your status among: non-runners, neophyte marathoners and 10K runners and especially people whose only exercise is getting a Bud from the frig.
Now it’s race day at Oak Mountain. So you can see how my mind is working, as Prince and I approach the first group of trail runners standing in the cross shadows of pine trees by their cars, close to the start line for the Oak Mountain Trial Run. They look like pirates and train robbers. Most are bandaged and have bandanas either on their heads or around their necks. Some have tattoos and patches on their eyes; one had a ponytail hanging like a rope down his bony brown back. All are gaunt and frail with a tinge of the “scurvy infection look.”
Prince and I are looking for Scott. I’m expecting to see an Adonis bathed in a golden light. He will be a man with a perfect physique, and catlike movements, like a leopard stalking game. He will be surrounded by adoring ultra marathoners, answering their questions, deciding their race strategies and approving their regimes and generally holding court about the fine points of ultramarathoning.
I am walking slightly ahead of Prince, who is wearing his American flag running shorts, and talking about his Boston strategy — the strategy that later proved disastrous and nearly ended his running career and his life as well. I hear Prince saying “I’m going to start slow and take my time at Boston — till I reach Newton. I want to be ready for those last hills” just then I spot a couple of guys leaning on the trunk of a Volvo. They are plain looking but studious. They are wearing trail shoes, and the heavier one has ace bandages wrapped around his knees.
I break in to Prince’s Boston strategy monologue “Prince, I’ll ask these guys if they know where Scott will be.”
I feel Prince’s hand on my shoulder as I hear him saying “Scott, Al — this is my friend Jim Bonds”
I turn to look at Prince to see if this is a joke. These two guys can’t be Darksiders.
I turn back to the guy Prince says is Scott. Scott does not know exactly what to make of me, and I am struck dumb with shock as I look him over. So we both just kind of nod our heads at each other with a blank stare. My first impression of Scott is that he definitely is not an Adonis; maybe he was when he was younger — but not now. He looks like he’s crossed Death Valley a couple of times though. I’d bet he smoked pot and probably knocked down a few beers in his day. But I don’t think he ever spent any time in a convent and probably wasn’t a cheerleader in high school — or college. Meanwhile, Prince and Scott and Al have quickly started up a conversation about the trail and the field of runners. Prince brings up the Western States. Scott says that he hates trail runs and would not be doing this one if it were not for the upcoming Western States Run. It’s the last great ultra that Scott has not run. Prince said that Scott really gets irked when people ask him about that race and he has to say he hasn’t done it. Scott in some ways is trapped by his own legend. That’s something I don’t have to worry about. Meanwhile I am noticing that the field is now slowly edging up to the start line. Scott pushes himself off the gray Volvo. He and Al and me and Prince all turn and cross the parking lot, and with Scott in the lead, we join the rest of field as it creeps up to the start.
I keep my eye on Scott. The big moment is coming when I can see this man’s stride. Some young guys who are trying to get to the front push in between us. One guy is wearing black shorts with flames on them like on a Chicano Hot Rod. He’s got earrings and a buzz haircut. He looks pretty serious. Later, he and I ride down from Pevine falls in the back of the water van. He fell and I gave up. Now though, those young dudes push on up to the front where the race dignitary is saying something about the aid stations. (The race dignitary and the water jugs disappeared later in the morning, leaving the field to drink from a muddy creek or go thirsty). As I am standing next to Scott, he says he is setting his calendar. He’s smiling and for a guy who hates trail runs seems to be in good a pretty good mood. The start shot goes off. Bam – we are moving. We are winding around the lake where picnickers gather. It’s early; tables are empty. The field is winding like a snake; the tail not knowing where the head is, the dead not knowing where the tail is, in and out of the long morning shadows. I’m breathing hard already. I try to mask my hard breathing from the Darksiders. I cough and say I’ve got a cold. They are not listening any way. Scott’s talking about the lame T-shirt that we are getting for the race. It turns out to be truly ugly – maybe the ugliest ever.
Now we are breaking off the road onto the white trail that ultimately ends at the top of Oak Mountain. I can see the runners stair-stepping up the trail, one head bobbing above the next. Scott is climbing right ahead of me.
Dear reader, now the time has come for me to describe Scott Ludwig’s running style and I don’t know exactly where to start. Some people trot like quarter horses, some like Tennessee walkers, and some like jackass donkeys from Mexico, but Scott’s a steed of a different breed. I know that the context of a thing has great bearing on the image and I’m thinking as I grab one tree after another pulling myself up the trail and stumbling on roots and rocks, that I’m sure Scott would look much better crossing a giant green pasture with the wind blowing his hair — but the fact is it wouldn’t be much better. To say his mechanics are piss poor is putting it mildly. I wouldn’t bet on him finishing a 2 mile run with a backwind — without stopping for a breather, or a smoke. Its just dawning on me — as I’m crashing down this trail between trees on the backside of the knoll we just climbed and Scott’s just ahead stumbling like a Brownstreet Bowey Bum on a three day drunk — why Prince had that sly grin on his face when I told him that I was going to pick up some great pointers on running mechanics today. The only person I know that has a less picturesque gate is me.
So, dear reader, what are we to think when we find out that the heroes who we have positioned so high on the totem pole of life are human after all?
Al Barker and Scott Ludwig have pulled 100 yards ahead and further ahead the leaders are specs of color up the trail. I can see a glint of light flashing off the little clips that hold Al’s ace bandage. From this distance his legs look like iron pipes with plumbers tape wrapped around them, and the two friends are circus ponies ascending.
Bob Dylan, my favorite poet, once said “What is good is bad and what is bad is good. You will find out when you reach the top.” The front runners have disappeared. The top of the mountain is hidden in a small morning cloud. Prince, with great patience, plods on up the trail with his old happily slappy-footed pal.