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A year later

One year.

You remember that day, right? You sat here in my office, listened, commented, took in what was said. After all, you were the one who wanted feedback. You were the one with the project. So you nodded and said it was all good, that you weren’t mad, that we’d ride again soon.

For the record, no one meant to “crush your spirit.” Those were your words. I still remember them. It was the only time we talked since that day.

I’m over it. I’ve got my trail running — Westwood and marathons and ultras. And I’m on the bike again after a long absence. But I didn’t make it to the Hilly, never got back down to Orange. That’s why I didn’t call you — and the fact that it seemed you didn’t want anything to do with me.

Like you, I’ve moved on. But I still think about the roads we shared.

As for graduation, Liz said you walked right past me and didn’t say a word. I didn’t see you. Not then. But I saw you afterward and was willing to walk away. I even started to do so. Then I changed my mind, decided I’d go back and say hello. But you were already gone.

I missed you by seconds.

The way it looks now, I missed you by a year.

Good luck on the bike. Good luck with your book. I hope you find what you’re looking for.

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Bicycle Eyes is in the process of migrating all running-related blogs to a new site, Indiana Trail Runner. Look for Bicycle Eyes to concentrate on cycling, while trail runs will be the focus on the new blog.

This isn’t Stipps Hill Road, but it’s not far off.

We ride Vanetta Hollow and Sanes Creek, tracing a familiar route having hills that test our legs and our will. Along the way we pass roads with names made familiar during our years of covering Fayette and Franklin counties. There’s Elm Tree, Quarry, and  Johnson School roads. We aren’t thinking when we push through the intersection of Riebolt Road, which connects to Buena Vista Road and, farther south, Hamburg Road. The latter two are divided by an east-west stretch of pavement — Stipps Hill Road.

It’s there five people were recently murdered, each shot to death.

“Police are investigating the deaths of five people Sunday afternoon that occurred in rural Franklin County,” reported the Brookville American-Democrat. “According to neighbors to the site and press releases from the Indiana State Police, the three men and two women were found at two separate properties off Stipps Hill Road.”

We talk of the killings on this fine October day, riding under blue skies and through fair temperatures, passing over hills and down into valleys where the beauty of the rolling countryside is juxtaposed with the raw edge of the territory. There are no million-dollar homes on today’s course, only blue-collar dwellings, including a plentiful supply of mobile homes and trailers, often with unkempt yards watched over by mixed-breed mutts, canines quick to give chase.

It’s hard to ride some of these roads without flashing back to the gritty reality captured in Winter’s Bone. Imagery of people bonded together by kinship. Scenes of lives torn apart by secrets, shame and lawlessness. Just as drugs permeated the story of Ree and her Ozark Mountain kin, they play a role here as well, in out-of-the-way places, behind locked doors, at all hours.

Drugs, it is believed, led to the killings on Stipps Hill Road.

We ride unafraid, trusting that such things happen only to other people, that we are safe in a perilous world. And maybe we are. Or it could be we are just naïve.

Road Bike: 29.87 miles — Fayette and Franklin counties.

A knee to the gut

The postcard lies on a counter in my office. Purchased as inspiration, it’s now a reminder of something lost.

A 1906 postcard of the Wabash River.

I didn’t run the Wabash Heritage Trail Marathon today. Pain and instability in my left knee — proof that no good deed goes unpunished — made running that distance impractical. Then again, for the past several days I couldn’t run to the mailbox without hobbling somewhere between the sidewalk and the road.

The postcard, mailed from Lafayette, Ind., in February 1906, pictures a scene “On the Banks of The Wabash — Lafayette, Ind.” When looking for a fall trail marathon to run, it was the course of the Wabash Heritage Trail race that appealed to me. In my youth, I spent countless hours on the Wabash, walking its banks, wading its waters, and searching for arrowheads in nearby fields. The Wabash is part of who I am.

The opportunity to run for miles along the Wabash River was too good to pass up. And the route, an out-and-back from Battle Ground to Fort Ouiatenon, involved two locations that also hold fond memories, one from college, the other a few years ago. Indeed, this was the perfect marathon. So I put in hours of training, built a mileage base, and mentally prepared.

But sometimes the best of plans go awry.

Four weeks before the race, just days after my last long run, a 24-miler that went well, I spent an afternoon helping my father move gravel for a building project. Not half an hour into the work, hauling stone in a wheelbarrow, my left knee began to ache. It was a dull but constant reminder that something was wrong, but not to the extent that it would hinder my running. At least not yet.

The real problem started five days later, after running hard between mile markers of a cross-country course where I was getting splits for my daughter’s team. After that day’s invitational I realized my knee was hurting again, but it was a different pain in a different spot. More intense.

Things went downhill from there.

Rest didn’t help. Nor easy spinning on the trainer. Nor stretching. At least not for long, and not with any consistency. After seeming better one day, it would be worse the next. No rhyme. No reason. And with no health insurance — one of the joys of being a self-employed writer whose last name isn’t Grisham or Patterson — there wasn’t the first thought of seeing a doctor. It wasn’t financially feasible.

So I waited. I spun and stretched and took days off or ran a few easy miles. And I hoped. I prayed. More than anything, I just wanted to run. To test myself along the banks of the Wabash. To stride beside that beautiful river of my youth.

When I found the postcard eight days before the race, I knew it would be the perfect thing to use with my blog entry about the marathon. I was still planning to run. Still thinking. Still hoping.

That all changed yesterday. Following a day in which the knee seemed to be improving, things were worse than ever. I made the decision, grabbed a weed cutter and took a walk at Westwood to let the trees minister to me. I would not race the next day. It wasn’t clear whether I would run anytime soon.

There’s great irony that the knee felt better today. That I was able to get out on the road bike, for the first time in what seems like forever, and put the wind in my face. I chose to do not what was easy, but what was hard. Riding so the wind would be against me on the way home. Taking in several nearby climbs, including Pest House Hill twice.

All the while, the knee felt fine.

Taking a few strides this evening, there was no pain, but there remains a sense that something isn’t working properly, the mechanics amiss.

For now, though, I have the bike. But there remains a marathon on my schedule yet this year. I have time yet to coax the troublesome knee back to health, and a full year to get ready for the race I missed today. There are no certainties about the knee, but the Wabash River will still be there.

Road bike: 22.58 miles — Henry County

These shoes

Brooks Cascadia 6. This year's model and the right size.

These aren’t your shoes.

Your shoes are in a box on a shelf in the back room or already re-sold to some other gullible customer. They were my shoes for two days, until I had the opportunity to return them, looking you in the face and telling you why. But you really seemed more interested in making excuses.

No, these aren’t your shoes.

Your shoes were a half size too small, like I told the kid who sold them to me. Those excuses you made when I returned them? It seems you taught them to your staff as well. After all, the kid told me the size was fine, that anything bigger would have too much room. Never mind the fact that even Brooks, the maker of the shoes, clearly states their footwear runs half a size small. What I suspect, of course, is that it had nothing to do with the size of my feet. Rather, it had everything to do with your store wanting to get rid of that particular pair of shoes.

These don’t even look like your shoes.

That’s because your shoes were last year’s model, something I pointed out when I took them back. Not that you cared. You shrugged a shoulder, lifted an eyebrow, and suggested there might not be anything special about this year’s model compared to the previous version. Despite added stability. And a completely new tread design. And that ounce they shaved off the weight, I reckon that’s not such a big deal either. Don’t think twice about the last pair of shoes you sold me — you, personally — which came so highly recommended because of their light weight. All that’s just folly now. Weight, shmeight.

Absolutely, these aren’t your shoes.

Funny, too, how you never tried to keep me in your shoes. From calling your store I discovered you actually had this year’s model, and it was in the correct size. Not that your salesman clued me in to that fact, since last year’s version was the only Brooks trail shoe I was given an opportunity to try on. And though I stood at your counter and outlined exactly what was wrong with the shoes I brought back — old model, too small — you never once asked if I wanted to try something else. You just insisted that no one there would try to sell me something that wasn’t in my best interest.

Without a doubt, these aren’t your shoes.

The new shoes I take to the trails at Westwood today came from your biggest competitor, a business I’ll patronize in the future. I’ve been a customer of yours for more than 20 years, but it will be a long time, if ever, before shoes on my feet cross the threshold of your store again. Maybe your sales staff should keep that in mind before they dump your outdated stock on another unsuspecting runner.

Trail run: 7 miles — Westwood Park

Miles apart

A great blue heron rises to the right, just off a corner of Bridge 2. My peripheral vision catches the motion, a blur of gray, but I don’t turn to look. Every bit of energy goes into what’s left of this run, less than 600 meters to the end, but with two final climbs. I approach those hills with my eyes focused on the trail six feet in front of me, all concentration on forward motion.

Tonight she does the same. Across a grassy campus more than an hour from here, she runs with a look of concentration so intense it seems nothing else exists except the patch of ground she occupies.

We both run in the heat, but I have the coolness of the morning and the shade of the woods to take the edge off the day, at least for a few hours. But by the end of the first lap, when I leave my shirt in the truck and stride out again, water and Gatorade bottles refilled, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand, the temperature already nudges toward 90 degrees. Later in the day, in the final three miles, crossing the Big Dig, over the emergency spillway and behind the dam, three open stretches of ground heated like a frying pan, I understand what she will face her entire race. But when she runs, it’s warmer still.

The heat doesn’t show on her face. It’s the usual look, barren of emotion, nothing but effort. As she tires, her eyes do not tell. But her arms are a gossip. The distance and heat are knives carving away at her form, and her right arm begins a telltale flop, needless motion across her chest.

There’s no one to watch my form, no one to offer guidance, but I know my body telegraphs its weariness. I’m running flatter, and my right leg starts to slowly go numb. An offshoot loop through the horse camp, running two miles on grass, in the sun, isn’t helping. During the second such diversion off the singletrack, I know my run is cracked. I fill bottles at an outdoor spigot, then backtrack after less than a mile to fill them again. By the time I return to the singletrack, four miles to go, I’ve settled into a shuffle.

A teammate runs ahead of her. The time between them begins to whittle down. Twenty-four seconds. Twenty-two. Twenty. But just when it seems she’s ready to cross the gap, the distance widens again. I’m not concerned, because she’s running well and always has a good kick in the last mile.

My uptick comes with two miles to go. On one of the flatter sections of Westwood, I pick up the tempo to see if I can maintain a steady pace. The numbness in my leg is gone, and returning to a full stride feels better than the stutter-steps of the last 20-plus minutes. I’m a runner again. In my mind, I calculate the distance to go — not the mileage left now, but what would remain in a marathon. I’m worn down but encouraged, hitting my fastest split of the day.

She runs steady, but will not catch her teammate. It doesn’t matter. She’s picking up her pace, looking strong. Down a long straight stretch of level ground and around the last turn, straight toward the chute, where a digital clock broadcasts a finish time she never would have imagined.

My final mile looks nothing like hers. The pace drops to a shuffle again, what will be the slowest mile of the day, crossing under the sun as I run beside the dam, then climbing to reach the top of that structure before disappearing into the woods again. I move forward, concentrating on the trail. Seeing the blur of great blue heron as I cross Bridge 2, I don’t look up. My mind focuses on the last two climbs. Until I’m on level ground, a few short bends, then stopping my watch at Mile Marker 0, doubling over, hands on knees. Done.

She sets a lifetime PR at 5k.

I’ve put in the distance.

She’s ready for the races ahead of her.

And so am I.

Trail run: 24 miles — Westwood Park

Days to come

Light brightens a section of the trail on the east side of Westwood Park, where the trees stop to look over adjoining fields. There’s a thinning out here that didn’t exist a week and a half ago, a shedding of leaves in the first preparation for a change of seasons. I run on a mosaic created in shades of brown, seeing the sky to my left and the organic carpet underfoot. And I know summer’s time stretches and pulls tight, each tug closer to a breaking point.

But these warm days have yet to snap. Leaving my shirt in the car, I run in shorts and half-finger gloves, wearing the same Virginia Cross Country hat that saw me through last autumn’s training and onto Tecumseh. There’s comfort in familiarity — this course, my attire, even the steady pace.

There are no great revelations to be told today — just a mention of the thinning of leaves and the slow, methodical extension of one long run to another. Nature and I prepare for days to come.

Trail run: 22 miles — Westwood Park