This piece was featured in issue #1 of Like the Wind Magazine. Words and photography by Leon Lutz (& Lily).
My dear Lily (and your little sister, Piper Bea),
If I’m being honest – and for the sake of both you and Piper Bea, I must and will be – I’d seen the question in your eyes a time or two before you actually spoke the words. More than likely I assigned that look to long days and a child’s want to always, always, always move on to the next adventure, hoping that the sentiment existed only on the very surface and lacked actual residence in your worries.
As the words hang there in the air, waiting for me to accept the challenge of offering an acceptable response, I now recognize their sincerity and beginnings rooted more deeply than just in moments of exhaustion or boredom.
At six years of age, you must find two hours waiting for my return to be interminably long. And that, of course, allows for only a short run in comparison to half days, full days, days on end in the backcountry seeking, perhaps, the answer to the very question you just posed. The older I get, the more fleeting hours and even days seem to be, but you haven’t yet been saddled with the sobering perspective of ageing, the consciousness of expiration dates and a notion of fewer years ahead than behind. Thank goodness. I actually find relief in knowing that this is not yet graspable for you or your sister. I celebrate it and ache at the idea that you both one day will comprehend the ceaseless, unrelenting march of time.
By the look on your face, I can tell that you’ve decided I wasn’t listening or don’t have any intention of answering your question, but I do. I’m trying.
Many other children, husbands, wives, partners, parents, friends have asked this very same question of runners scattered all across this enormous (though not so enormous as you might think) planet. Each of them has deserved an honest answer just as each person who asked the question is equally deserving of his or her right not to provide one.
But, for you, I am trying.
Much of my answer lies in the sensations conjured by watching you and Piper Bea race about the backyard. It is the same emotions I experienced the first time you twisted your little newborn hands into my beard and unfurled a yawn seemingly too big for your little body before falling asleep nestled beneath my chin. Witnessing inaugural smiles, first words and teetering, exploratory steps elicited similar feelings. All of those initial revelations and awe- inspiring discoveries were connections to a world so breathtakingly beautiful when uncluttered by all that you at six do not, simply cannot, yet know. How sad it is for me to accept that you will not be and cannot be kept from one day knowing.
When I run and especially when I run long and far, all that I’ve come to know (or think I know) of the world washes away and I am better, much better, for it. The connections that came so easily at four and six years old, connections that seem nearly impossible to make at 39, become quite possible. Not only do they become possible, Lil, they happen. Bodies that would pass wordlessly on a city street or a suburban neighborhood engage effortlessly in comfortable conversation. Laughter, genuine heart-happy laughter, is the norm amongst ultrarunners and occurs without the reservations of political correctness or the shadowy assessment of present company.
That furrow in your tiny brow reveals your frustration at trying but failing to understand that last sentence but I couldn’t be happier that the weight of social constraints is one foreign to you, at least for now.
I’ll say it another way. You don’t like closed doors, do you? I’ve watched you approach them with the same disdain I feel, your posture almost demanding access to the other side. Life is full of closed doors, Lily, and I too tire of them. Out on the trails, doors that are closed in our everyday are opened wide. No, that’s not quite right. They aren’t opened so much as they just aren’t there at all.
Please don’t mistake my yearning for the outdoors and my passion for running as a need to escape the world on the whole or a suggestion that all of life is constraints, enclosures and nuisance. There is so much to love about our family, our home, our neighbors, school and, yes, even work. You and I have talked quite a lot about balance both in the physical sense of avoiding toppling over on the playground or while riding your bicycle and in the less easy to understand way of keeping from feeling like you’re being pushed, jostled and overwhelmed by everything being asked of you by your friends, your teachers or Lindsay and me… Sorry, Mommy and me.
For providing me with that second kind of balance, trail running should be given signi cant credit. Rather than serving as an escape, my time spent running and exploring keeps me from getting dizzy and losing sight of all that there is to love in a sometimes crazy world. I may lose my physical balance, take a misstep and fall while running, but the rest of life seems to spin a little less out of control thanks to my time spent on the trail.
I suspect that doesn’t make much sense either, does it? But it is true.
Remembering how much I love you, your mother and Piper Bea is easy and doesn’t require any reminders, but other things can be taken for granted. Mowing the lawn, paying the bills and fixing all the little dings and flaws that need fixing can definitely add up to my not fully appreciating how lovely it is to have our house. Eight, 12, 24 or more hours on my feet and many miles of effort have a funny way of making home seem really, really precious. Solitary runs which I enjoy nearly as much as those shared, if in a different way, make me that much more appreciative of conversation and interaction upon arrival back home and at work. Even the end of long races that included time spent with others brings the promise of reuniting with loved ones or, best of all, receiving big hugs from sign-toting daughters! Long hours on the trail and the freedom from external demands also provide a clear focus, otherwise often lacking, when I go to work day after day, week after week without a break.
All of that perspective is a wondrous benefit of running so much, but it isn’t the honest answer to your question. The answer, getting back to my earlier point, is joy. Innocence, sadly, is fleeting. Unrestricted movement and an unfettered engagement of the senses with nature are the closest I’ve come to reclaiming innocence and restoring the naiveté that makes each new discovery a miracle. Being outside is on its own nearly enough, but coupling the outdoors with running gets me all the way there. When I run, I am not jaded. When I run, all that I see, hear and feel is seen, heard and felt anew, experienced for the first time. For the first time, every time.
When I run, Lily, I know joy. I really do. I’m fully immersed in it without any interference. It isn’t something that I’m reading about or seeing on a television screen and recognizing as happiness. It is happening right there inside of me. Inside of me and all around me. It’s the same unencumbered joy that you experienced (and your adoring parents, too) with those first smiles, first words, first steps. It is the astonishing sparkle in your eye when you waved to me before stepping on the school bus for your first day of kindergarten and the corresponding pride that brought tears to my eyes. Remember how excited you were to show me you could hang upside down from the swing set and do flips underwater at the pool? That joy, that’s what running gives me. Racing down every new trail (or old, familiar trail for that matter) is like pulling off that first ip or realizing that I’m doing it, I’m doing it… I am actually hanging upside down!
It’s wonderful, isn’t it, Lily?
I don’t ever want to miss out on your latest achievement, your newest discovery. More importantly, I do not ever want to be present only to then take any of your joy for granted. The balance of running and all else that life is and can be helps to ensure that I never overlook the things that ll you with joy. Maybe you’ll even find in time that running is for you too one of its sources, but it doesn’t ever need to be, not ever. So long as you find an activity, a person, something, anything that helps you find connection, balance and love, I’ll be there to help you celebrate it.
Oh, how I look forward to one day asking you why you do whatever it is you decide you best like doing so much. Even if I think I know the answer.
Love you always and at every moment,
Steven “Leon” Lutz is a humble husband, proud father, hack writer, gear peddler, trail shuffler and beard cultivator from Pennsylvania, USA. @thisbeesknees
First published on Leon’s blog.