Saturday, January 21, 2012


Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.
I'm not sure all these people understand.
It's not like years ago,
The fear of getting caught,
Of recklessness and water.
They cannot see me naked.
These things, they go away,
Replaced by everyday.

So go the lyrics to REM's Nightswimming. Generally I tend to be a moron when it comes to, well most things actually, but particularly understanding lyrics and poetry. In fact, while I am on the topic, if anyone out there has a few hours to spare and would like to explain the lyrics of my favorite Bob Dylan song to me: "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" I would be grateful. I love that song, not just for the gravel of Dylan's voice as he barely sings it, it's simple melody, it's sheer length but because I know, KNOW it is packed with meaning and allegory even if the meaning and allegory escape me ("she was thinking about her father whom she very rarely saw" ... what does that MEAN?). 

All that aside, I am pretty sure I know what the lyrics in Nightswimming are getting at. It's a song about how a moment can be so wondrous when we are young, but as we age, repetition of experience and world weariness scour away the brilliance of discovery in mundane moments and rob them of their former magic. Sadly, all too many happenings that were once anticipated with wide-eyed excitement have lost their glow for me... writing on blank loose-leak with a freshly sharpened pencil on an early September morning,  the first hint of colour in the trees or autumnal crispness in the air, the first snowfall, Christmas Day, air travel ... having children, of course, brings back the magic of many of these things, I get the observe the joy in la cocotte as she breathes in these experiences and in some ways that is even sweeter. But this post in not about having children. It is about running.

Running is the one thing that still fills me with the same excited giddiness as it did when I first strapped a pair of spikes to my feet and stepped out onto 8 lanes of rubber track to compete in an 800 m race. I still feel a catch in my breath when I overfly an unfamiliar cityscape and spy the un-mistakeable orange scar of track. I still have that cherry-blossoms against the full moon of a summer night sky feeling when I am rested and tapered and ready to run a long anticipated marathon. When I manage to carve out a precious 70-80 minutes to exert my body, now more than ever due to scarcity of free-time in my life, my excitement in the run parallels that of my youth. The joy is made even more profound by the inevitable, accompanying gratitude which, in my youth, I wasn't wise enough to have. Gratitude that I am healthy enough to run and I have been granted this swatch of time in which to do so.

Likewise, after living in Montreal for the bulk of my life (I've moved back to Montreal fully five times now) there are still certain routes and loops that are so strongly associated with running fit and fast, with training arduously towards a major goal that I literally cannot go there without getting excited and, without running well. Summit is one of those places. It is a loop of road at the top of Westmount which is the rich anglophone community in Montreal; Outremont (literally "Other Mountain") is the rich francophone community in Montreal. There are the expected wonderful views of the island, and on a clear day, the Adirondaks, the Green Mountains and the Laurentians. There are laughably big houses that seem to be in frozen competition with each other for sheer ridiculousness of size and pretentiousness of trimmings (the one with the two lions on either side of the front walk wins hands down in my opinion). There are surprisingly cracked and pot-holed roads proving that suspension- destroying asphalt knows no economic boundaries in our crumbling city. There is a bird sanctuary in the middle of the loop which is as pretty as one might expect from a bird sanctuary in the middle of the city. In short, it is the attractive neighbourhood as one would expect that affluence and good positioning can produce.

For me, and many other runners in Montreal it is a wondrous place where the presence of effort and exertion and ghosts of fast runs past is palpable. I have prepared for all three of my sub-3 hour marathons there. My longest run up there was 38 km which required covering the 2.4 km loop, fully 16 times. When I am fit and running long, I tick off the loops between 10:15 and 11:00. My record summit loop is 8:11. On my last run there, which was last week, I was comfortably running between 12:45 - 13:30. I have run up there in 30 degree heat when the humidex pushed perceived temperature to just over 40 deg C; I drank from bottles I stashed in the bird sanctuary. I have run up there in -20 deg C with the windchill making me feel the bite of -30 deg C particularly when I lowered my multiple layers to relieve myself (also in the bird sanctuary). I simply cannot have a bad run up there. Maybe it's because when I run there I am chasing the ghosts of myself who are in turn chasing various PBs and records. Maybe it's simply because it is such a pain in the ass to get to - particularly when one is 34 weeks pregnant, doesn't own a car, it's January and there has been freezing rain. Indeed, perhaps it is nothing more complicated than the sheer effort of getting there means that I only do get there when I am motivated to run well.

I think and hope it is more than that though. I think Summit is sacred to me. Not through anything external and certainly having nothing to do with Montreal's famous Saint Joseph's Oratory which sits imposingly on Summit's shoulder. I think Summit has been made sacred by the exertion and effort I have poured into her roads; made sacred by the memories of pain and pride; made sacred by great races which have come as a result of paying my dues at summit. The result is that even if I am just passing through on an errand or running there completely exhausted on a recovery day, deep inside me is the throb of Christmas Eve anticipating and the overwhelming feeling of simply being somewhere special and wondrous. So finally, as an adult, it seems that repetition of experience in this case has not dulled the brilliance of Summit but rather waxed and polished it. I have found my thing that does not go away, replaced by every day.


  1. When did you learn to write so well?

    I always sang the lyrics "the recklessness of water," which is meaningless, but rather poetic.

    I have a photo of me in Montreal in 1983, shot long-range from the top of a hill in a park in what I think is the older part of town (Outremont sounds right), with me standing next to a ridiculously expensive car in front of an extravagant house. I should send it to you - it's just a field of green until you see my red shorts and then the black car.

    Often, Dylan's lyrics are obtuse to the point of meaninglessness. The titles generally were changed every time they were rehearsed and made up spontaneously. I know that I know that particular Dylan song, but it's not coming to me.

  2. I just checked: Dylan made commentaries about a number of his songs, but not this one. There's a wikipedia page with a half-dozen theories about its meaning.