We all have favorite places to run. Sometimes a route is so familiar that we can run it on autopilot, allowing our minds to rummage through stored thoughts and feelings. Other routes are new and require our full attention, thus distracting us from the physical act of running.
Still others contain remnants of past runs and promises of future ones. These routes become special not so much because of what or where they are, but because of the events that occur while running them. Running on and around the Mall in Washington, DC is such a route for me.
I lived in the Washington area for 10 years. These were the early career years, the early marriage and family years, and the years of total unawareness. Too young to see the damage I was doing to my body and soul, and too old to ask for help, I staggered blindly through that decade.
Now, some 15 years after leaving, I return with the wisdom and scars earned in the Coliseum of life. I return not so much victorious as grateful. Grateful to have gotten past my ignorance, grateful to be given a second chance.
Some of the monuments are the same. There is the stoic Lincoln Memorial, the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ Washington Monument, the dignified Jefferson Memorial, and at the far end, the Capitol with its cathedral-like dome. Others are new, like the Vietnam Memorial [The Wall], the Nurses Monument, and the Korean War Memorial.
Starting across the river at the Marine Corps Memorial, commonly called Iwo Jima, the odyssey into my past is marked by more personal monuments. I had looked over this same scene hundreds of times traveling to and from work, to and from friends, to and from lives; and yet it is all different now.
Crossing the Memorial Bridge, I can see that the once polluted Potomac River is now alive and well. There are boaters and skiers and sightseers. Below me is where the old Watergate Barge was docked. That barge, long gone, was the site of many Tuesday night summer concerts while I was in the Army Band.
I can see the faces of friends and family, also gone, still etched into the steps. As other runners pass me, I wonder what they are seeing. I
wonder if they see the children playing. I wonder if they hear the applause. I wonder if they know how much of me is still there, just at the water’s edge.
Arriving on the Mall, I am confronted by tourists. I am running in my own world now, but I know that my presence is just one more inconvenience as the packs and herds of visitors move through history. Adorned in t-shirts and ball caps, armed with guidebooks and cameras, the tourists become a moving obstacle course.
I usually let my mood dictate my route, but I always make my way back to “The Wall.” I cannot run past the Wall. I don’t know how anyone my age can. I know names on the Wall. And so I walk. I walk, and I remember, and I hurt. I remember myself as a young man in uniform and I realize that I don’t understand war any better now than I did back then.
Crossing back over the river I look up at Arlington Cemetery. I see the gardens of stone, the flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave, and the tomb of the unknown soldiers. Suddenly I am aware of my legs and lungs. I am aware of the effort of running. I am aware of my fatigue.
I am aware that I am alive. Truly alive, not just living. I am running because I can, not because I must. I am free to continue and free to stop. I am surrounded by the monuments, large and small, to the individuals who have made those choices possible.
And for just a few minutes, in a monumental way, I am connected to them all.
Waddle on, friends.