Zen Track Rambling came about quite by chance: First, as a joyful account to capture the feelings I experienced during my long runs; and secondly, as a means to relieve the pain, depression, and general helplessness I felt during a long-term injury. My running journey has led me to extreme highs, but has also plunged me, bipolar-like, into the depths of depression.
The journey began in Starved Rock State Park, outside of LaSalle, Illinois, in August 1999, when I was an expatriate in Australia working in the States for a spell. At sunrise, I’d run the trails before work, then share in a communal breakfast with my workshop colleagues; yet during the work day, I would drift and daydream. I was 50-something, and felt disconnected, not knowing who I was or where I was headed. But I put my time to good use during those humdrum workshops: I’d scribble the memories from the day’s run on scraps of paper! The result of my ennui was an accumulation of paper scraps marked with ruminations of my daily runs.
On my flight back to Australia, I gathered those scraps and magically scribed the poem “Zen Track Rambling”.
The title of the poem, however, is unrelated to my morning runs on the Starved Rock trails even though they were the poem’s inspiration; rather, “Zen Track” is a name my Australian running mates and I coined to describe a scorching-hot, blustery bike path that runs along a railway line – and, once hosted the infamous Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin – where we often hallucinated as we ran in 100-plus-degree temperatures.
As I was living and working in Australia for quite some time, I made a few friends in the South Australian Writer’s Workshop, notably Kim, who encouraged me to read “Zen Track Rambling” in one of the “Poetry Under The Pier” reading sessions in Henley Beach. I remember my first poetry reading like it was yesterday. Somewhat unsure of myself, I drew a deep breath and bared my soul to the gathered throng of poetry lovers. The ensuing positive reception I received convinced me to continue to write down what I felt, envisioned, and/or hallucinated on my long runs.
As the years went by, I ran hundreds of miles, maybe even thousands, and the word count accumulated along with those miles. Australia was where I also got into competitive racing. On the weekends, I ran 20-plus-mile endurance runs on the sands of Henley Beach. I ran the annual 30km South Australian Road Runners Club race many times, but it became less and less of a challenge. I could no longer ignore thoughts of running a marathon! I knew I had the distance in the bag since I was already running 20-plus mile runs each weekend on the beach. Completing that first marathon was just the beginning of my long-distance running career.
Then, in June 2000, an injury crippled my running life. I had been training for the Corporate Cup, running with guys 20 years my junior and at their pace! My 5K time was a sub-20 minutes! Not bad for a 50-year-old! But every runner knows that speedwork takes a toll on the body, and running hardcore like that resulted in very painful sciatica. I felt discouraged and depressed, and those feelings became apparent in my writing.
When I think back to that time, I realize that writing had become my therapy, my way to understand my own fears and to express a hope I did not yet feel. Many of my poems, particularly, “Footsteps in the Sand”, not only reveal my physical pain but also the mental anguish I felt. When the pain from my injury subsided – it took 6 long months – I felt the adrenaline surge again, but this time I replaced competitive racing with slow, long-distance running. Similarly, my writing style also changed: I started to write how I felt during those long runs in the form of race reports, instead of poetry, to memorialize my ultra-marathon experiences. My running life had finally pushed me forward into positive places on the trails and my spirit of running was renewed.