Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal. Hanna More
I was on my way home from the Farmer’s Market in Marquette last Saturday morning when I saw them, skittling and diddling across Wright Street in a clump behind their waddling mother. In amazed delight, from the car I now had screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, I counted them, twelve tiny balls of yellowish fuzz. And I cheered out loud as mother mallard, the leader of this brood, lifted her webbed feet onto the sidewalk, safe and sound on the other side, as the adorable dozen fluff-balls hopped up after her. But then I noticed it, and she noticed it, too, the metal fence stuck into the sidewalk’s grassy edge, the metal fence that was separating her from a banking and a woodsy stream below, and neither one of us seemed to know what to do next. She poked her head through a hole in the fence, but her body would not follow, and then she spoke in her loud duck voice, “Quack! Quack! Quack!”
And meanwhile, I pulled my car into a side street, parked in front of a house and frantically ran out to be of assistance. And frankly, I don’t know how much assistance I really offered to her — I might have been causing more distress with my presence. But I tried. I tried to calm myself down, and to speak in a caring voice, in a language that maybe she would understand. “Come this way,” I coaxed as I beckoned with my hands. But she, from her close-to-the-ground vantage point, could not see what I, with a broader vision in that moment, could. The fence didn’t go on forever. She just needed to guide her babies beside its metal edge in the safety of the grass for twenty-five or so feet and then the banking and the stream would be hers, and all would be smooth sailing.
How often is it like that for us as well, that the grass is too tall and we are too short, and the fence seems to stretch on forever and our goal seems so far away and we just don’t know how to get there and we feel like giving up with a squawk and a quack, quack, quack? Since childhood, I have felt like a runner. I was a runner. At Y Day Camp, the dashes across the field were a breeze for me on my skinny runner’s legs, and, in middle school, I lined up with confidence on the starting line ready to charge my way through the President’s Fitness Mile. And I’ve carried this confidence, that I am a runner, at least in my spirit, into adulthood. I just haven’t done much with it. For years, I gleaned spectator pleasure as I watched my son, on his nimble legs, fly like the wind around high school and college tracks, and through the woods on cross country trails and over city streets in road races. And this was fun, cheering a loved-one on, but it’s not quite the same as living your own runner’s dream. Sure, I’ve dabbled in it. When the snow melts each spring and my cross-country skis find their way back into storage, I say to myself, this will be the year that running will become fun for me. And I, dressed in my high-tech reflective gear, start out with the loftiest intentions as I head down the two-tracks and trails near my house. All is well, for the first ten minutes or so, until I begin to miss my skier’s glide and the ease of the skating motion, until my hips begin to hurt, and my hamstrings, too, until I say to myself, that running is hard, that it’s just not fun. And still, the desire to run with ease for mile after mile lives within me, and still, I think of myself as a runner, a runner who runs long distances.
And now, it’s spring tipping into summer and the ground has been clear of snow for well over a month, and, once again, I have slipped into the running shoes, into the running life, this year determined to stick with it. I was writing this sentiment in my journal, in fact, a week ago, on the plane ride back from Portland, Maine, writing that I sense there is some block that I can break through to make this easier, this daily practice of running, writing this as the man next to me was reading a book. And just moments after scribbling these words in my journal, as the plane touched down in Detroit, the man, on his way back from a college reunion and exactly my age, asked me what was in my water. When I replied that it was chia seeds, we talked of the book, Born to Run, how the runners in Mexico eat chia seeds as a staple. “Are you a runner?” I asked my new friend. And to my delight, I discovered that not only is he a runner, but a distance runner, a runner of marathon after marathon, a runner happy to share his running tips with me. And that’s what he did as we walked through the airport. “Alternate your running with your walking,” he said, “but keep at it, for the whole hour that you are on the trails. And don’t worry about how fast you are; start slow. And give your body time to adjust; it’s a sport that pounds like no other.” So here he was, a man my age, well into his fifties, a man who didn’t start distance-running until a few years earlier, a man who ran his way through fences or around fences or found places where there were no fences.
And I’m happy to say that I tried it the next day. I gave myself permission to run slowly and with ease, to walk if I needed to – and, it was the strangest thing; I didn’t need to. I ran for the whole hour. And I did it again the next day and the next. That fence that I’d built up in my mind, the belief that I’d held so tightly all these years, that running was hard, that it wasn’t fun, that I was too old to start taking off for hours at a time, that I was going to hurt myself — that fence that had hindered me in the past, it was nowhere in sight. I’d busted free. And if I can do it in this one arena of my life, I can do it in other arenas as well. Where else am I putting up fences between myself and that steady stream of dreams? Where else can I bust free?
Mother mallard, she didn’t give up. There were moments that I thought she might, moments where I was ready to halt traffic on Wright Street as I sensed her resolve wavering and her body heading back to the starting line, and other moments in which she turned herself around and led her brood in the fence’s other direction. But then she plugged away, quacking all the while, calling her brood to follow. And they did follow, and she did make her way forward and she found it, the freedom at the other end of the fence. And I breathed this great heaving sigh of relief as I watched her waddle down the hill, as I watched them, the clump of fuzz, follow her forward toward that freely running stream.