If I were more mathematically inclined, I could plot the direct relationship between the blueness of the sky (assuming that grey-blue is the continuum I insist it is, and not a cloudy-sunny binary that others demand) and the density of crowds walking, running, biking, stroller-pushing and rollerskating around Greenlake. It’s the second busiest city park in the nation, designed by the same Olmsted Brothers who gave New York, with Central Park, America’s busiest city park. It is lovely, an uneven circle, surrounded by lawns and rolling hills, boulevards of craggy trees and hidden coves for swimming and hammocking away Seattle summers. It is democratic, this lake, and a trip around on a summer day will reveal a broad array of ages, cultures, languages, and shapes—of people and dogs—who occupy this city.
In September, though, when the reliable blue fades to a reliable grey, when everyone remembers what they like to do inside, whether it’s work or school calling, or the books I just asked everyone to read, in September it feels like my lake. For three-ish miles, I run around the shore and I could be almost any age, as if this body of water is my own time-traveling feature of geography.
This autumn marks twenty years of running for me. In 1999, as a high school sophomore, I abandoned the volleyball team I’d supported enthusiastically from the bench for one season, and joined the cross country team. The spring before I’d been a passable sprinter and long jumper on the track team, so it wasn’t a huge leap (no pun intended) to keep running in the fall. Had I known that it would spell the end of my sprinting days, I might have chosen differently, but at the time I only knew that it offered a few attractive possibilities.
First, most practically, this was a sport that required less of the coordination I didn’t have and fewer possibilities to let down my teammates in a dramatic fashion, with a weak serve or a missed return. With no tryouts, I feared no rejection, and the cross country team was then, and still seems to be, the home of the athletic misfits, basically intellectual kids who like to stop studying, run for an hour, then come back to write a paper. That was my crowd.
My second motive developed over time, but it was an aesthetic one. I told a friend, long after high school, that I’d loved cross country not for the running, especially, but because I liked running through the park with friends in the fall. I can remember the crunch of leaves and the sweet smell of the dying summer that rose from under my feet, and the exhilaration of jumping over the roots that grew in our path. Cross country was a beautiful sport, allowing me to visit the loveliest places in the best season.
Back then, as now, I would say I was running “for fun.” Which is a strange saying, so broadly applied to our hobbies and pursuits that it almost doesn’t mean anything now. We do so many things for fun, with such varying degrees of enjoyment, that perhaps what we mean is that these activities are ones that don’t contribute to our survival. “For fun” is the energy we spend on something that doesn’t earn us money, protect us from harm, or prepare us for success.
The irony is that for me, the running is almost never the fun part. I can count on my fingers the times that I’ve loved breathless the feeling of watching one foot chase another down a rocky trail, reveling in the proper functioning of my limbs. I’m thankful for it, running, but strictly speaking I don’t find it as fun as, say, eating ice cream would be. No, it’s everything around running that has been fun.
It was fun, at fourteen years old, to find my place on a team, after a year of feeling deeply disconnected from my large high schoool. It was fun to spend each autumn in the gloriously colorful city parks, running down leaf-carpeted trails, tears streaming from the wind in my eyes. It was fun, for the first time, to feel a taste of athletic success, so tantalizing to a book-smart sophomore. I ran for fun.
By some miracle, I’m still running. So much has changed since I raced through Lower Woodland Park, chasing Lindsey and Ana and Sayaka, but I’m still running around Greenlake. And it’s still fun. Not the running, but it’s fun to be outside, crunching through leaves and watching the waves on the lake. It’s fun to be alone, for a little while, hearing only the music I chose or the thoughts that I have a bit of time for. It’s fun to be thankful, again, for a body that still allows me to do this, even after everything. It’s still fun.