Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
“Run, Forrest! Run!”
As an elementary schooler, I had no idea what this phrase meant, only that it was yelled after me frequently and that it was annoying.
And yet, I ran.
I galloped through the hallways and dashed around the playground and always offered to play midfielder on my soccer team so that I could bound unbridled up and down the field. On summer days, I would join my mom for her daily run, leaping up to snag leaves from trees as we went.
I loved to run.
There is only one thing I remember about the first cross country race I ever ran. I was in seventh grade. The race was in Sparta, Michigan. And all I recall is my coach yelling that I needed to pass only a couple more boys in the final half-mile to earn a medal.
I got my medal.
Much of my middle school and high school career was spent chasing more medals and other accolades: school records, first place finishes, and conference titles.
In his post this month, Josh wrote about the idea of first things: on what foundation do you build your identity? For years, my foundation was running. I was a cross country runner before I was anything else. I had a brimming cornucopia of interests, but when collegiate life demanded I make cuts, I dumped everything out but running. It took multiple x-rays revealing a tiny black crack etching its way across my icy blue shin and a titanium rod piped down my tibia for me to reassess my foundation.
My sophomore and junior years I studied abroad in York, England and Oviedo, Spain, respectively. Here, running was no longer a way to prove myself, but a way to experience the world.
At the center of York towers a monolithic cathedral called The Minster. During my first week in York, I set out for a short run to get to know the city. I ended up running thirteen miles alongside rivers and through neighborhoods and across parks, using the Minster as a North Star to guide me home.
In Oviedo, a large hill swelled up next to the city. It was studded with pre-Romanesque shrines and an illuminated Jesus statue that everlastingly presided over the city. Some nights, as darkness began to spill down the mountainside, I ran up to one of the shrines and stood over the city, trying to trace the golden roads below back to my piso where my mama was frying up Spanish tortilla for my dinner in our little tiled kitchen.
During my travels, I lolloped down the slick emerald hills of Scotland and slalomed up the crowded staircase to the Piazza di Michelangelo in Florence. I discovered a salt-sprayed seaside path in southern France and a quiet lake a few miles north but world away from downtown Stockholm and a generous homeless man who offered me a paper towel after I tore open my knee on some gravel beside the Colosseum.
Each run became an Odyssey—a going out and a coming back. Changed, if only a little.
This past weekend I attended Calvin College’s cross country national meet in Elsah, Illinois. Given that the last person I know on the team ran his final race, it’s doubtful I’ll attend another Nationals any time soon. And there’s nothing like lasts to make you think about firsts.
As I was leaving the course on Saturday, I turned back to say goodbye. I had never been to the course before, but I knew it so intimately. I could feel my spikes puncturing the earth and smell the pastel candle scents of the port-a-johns and hear the wind split apart by the meadow grasses and taste the chilled air settling in my lungs.
And I realized these are the first things: not medals or adventures, but the cinch of laces around a foot and reliable slide of mud and bitter perfume of sweat rising like smoke off shoulders. The knowledge that if I start running 68-second laps on a track, the muscles between my thumb and index finger will ache with oxygen deprivation after 600 meters. Bearing faithful witness to the human form tightening and loosening in its familiar ways.
While I was hiking a mountain outside Seattle with my friend Joel a couple years ago, he introduced to me the concept of second simplicity. This philosophy proposes that we hold simple understandings of our beliefs and passions early in life. Later, friends and professors challenge us to pick apart these foundations, rigorously turning and assessing each stone. Only after we’ve done this can we revisit our old understandings with the same simplicity but a new profundity.
Second simplicity is loving an Emily Dickinson poem, dissecting its rhyme and scansion and cultural context, and then loving it deeper. It’s admiring a rose garden, taking courses in cell biology and organic chemistry, then admiring the roses freshly. It’s the reason that even after years of literature courses, you are still asked to answer the question “What is literature?” in your capstone course.
It’s a going out and a coming back. Changed.
Last night before I sat down to write, I went for a run. I’m visiting my friend Brooke in Indianapolis, so I let my legs pick any direction. The air was the color and temperature of deep sea, and I ran along a busy road until the sidewalk ended. I turned and followed some capillary lanes until I happened upon the White River Yacht Club.
If you’ve ever wanted to join a yacht club but felt it was too far beyond your social stratosphere, come to Indianapolis. I don’t know a lot about yacht clubs, but I feel like ones situated on rivers probably aren’t the gold standard. Worn pontoon boats huddled together on the banks, praying to survive the impending winter. I ignored a couple “NO TRESPASSING” signs and hopped out onto a small dock.
The river slid by quickly and lights from the houses on the opposite side shivered on its obsidian surface. I dipped my fingers in. The water was warmer than I expected.
I laid down on the dock and looked through the jagged branches of an accomplished tree at the swarm of stars thrust beyond us. I felt the current pulse below me and my own heart slow. I sat up and contemplated the old yacht club building, the fringe of gray branches lacing the riverbanks, the silhouettes of people in one of the houses watching TV.
Then I stood up, and I ran back, and I loved it.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.