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Cross-Country--Winning at Van Cortlandt Park
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When I was in school, I ran from the day classes began in September until they closed the doors in June. Now I run from the beginning of the year until its end. The Road Runners Club schedule on the kitchen bulletin board has over 140 races extending from January to December. So distance running is a sport for everyday of my life. There is no need to pack my gear until running starts again. It begins every day. And every time of year is a time for running. I love all of that ever-recurring cycle of the year. But, like the lover who loves the girl he's near and clings to the kiss he's close to and fancies the face he faces, the season I love best is the one that's here. Soon I will see winter as Paradise, then spring as another Eden, and later summer as the Promised Land. But for now, autumn is my season in heaven. The October air does that. Crisp, clear, invigorating. Carrying every sound. Demanding attention. And the weather perfect for running. The runner is as sensitive to the weather as a Stradivarius. And it is autumn that makes me go best. I am living the life my youth had promised me. Living at the top of my powers. No wonder that Yeats, who saw spring as youth and summer as adolescence, saw autumn as manhood. And autumn is heaven because there are races to do that best, to run at that peak, to manifest that manhood. And make no mistake, it is in action that we are in heaven. Heaven is not quiet, said Yeats. There the lover still loves, but with greater passion; the rider still rides, but the horse goes like the wind; and the battle goes on. The runner still races. And for now, in this forever that is autumn, cross-country is the best of all races. That is where I began. In Autumn with cross-country. It was my first taste of running and it is good to taste it again. Cross-country is free running at its best. Just me and the land. Me and that crisp air. Me and the leaves underfoot. Me and the silent hills. That's cross-country. Just me and the breathing and the leaves crunching underfoot on these silent hills. Everything around me is dead or dying and I feel reborn. I am at my best. And it is a best, a rebirth that I experience alone. Nature is the only spectator. On other seasons, in other races, there are people to cheer and encourage or just to watch. Curious onlookers. But not in cross-country. Within minutes, I am alone with my fellow runners. Minutes later and I am separated even from them. Yards ahead or yards behind, they are out of my line of thought, beyond the horizon of my mind. I am alone on the back hills of Van Cortlandt. And the course that tested me as a teenager is testing me again. And again I suffer on hills that made me suffer when I was eighteen. Again I fly down the hills I flew down in bygone years. And again I come out of those hills facing an all-out fight to the finish with any runner close to me. And that was the way it was at Van Cortlandt last week. Nine miles, three times over those back hills. The first three-mile loop oddly the most painful. Then the second loop not quite as bad. And finally the third time actually running at the hills and conquering them. So that when I came out on the flat, the man I had to beat was only thirty yards ahead. Only in another autumn, in another season in heaven, will I relive that finish. An impossible quarter-mile sprint and then holding on to the man I had just beaten so I wouldn't fall down. Hearing his heart pounding against my ear and my own beating in unison. Knowing only that and a world suddenly filled with friends saying nice things to an aging man who felt ageless in autumn.