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Running the Path Home

Steve Charles—Last June, Professor Greg Redding ’88 ran a race of 100 miles up and down the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. He told me a little bit about it in the Allen Center locker room after he’d finished a “short” training run of 10 miles or so. 

I didn’t realize people even dared such things. It sounded more like the kind of running the Tarahumara people of Mexico would do in the canyons of the Sierra Madre, not the avocation of a Wabash German professor.

"Very few people have any idea what it’s like to run 100 miles,” I told Greg, and asked him to write about it. I’ve seen a draft, and we’ll have his story in the Winter 2010 issue of Wabash Magazine. It’s a piece you’ll not want to miss.

One of my favorite scenes has Greg running at night under a canopy of more stars than he’s ever seen, the bobbing headlamps of a few fellow runners flashing like fireflies in the valley below him. Every time I talk with Greg he recalls another intriguing detail.

The only problem I’ve had with the piece is figuring how to illustrate it. The one shot Greg’s running partner tried to take of him on the trail didn’t turn out, and I was hoping for something dramatic to accompany a story about a 30-plus hour 100 mile run through some of the most beautiful country in America.

Then I found out that Greg trains for these runs in Shades State Park. It’s not the Bighorn Mountains, but Shades has a quiet, deep beauty of its own. Ancient hemlock groves and hiding places even the Ice Age glaciers couldn’t find. Standing with Mike Bachner ’70 on the banks of Sugar Creek several years ago, the western naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams declared, “Wildness resides in the heartland of America.”

Greg has logged far more than 100 miles on the trails of this wildness, so with the fall colors fading I drove down Wednesday and photographed his training run up Trail 8 through Shawnee Canyon.

Here’s an album of photos from the day.

Splashing through the rain-swollen springs trying to photograph Greg, I learned a bit more about training for trail running. It’s less about speed than foot placement. If you’re going to be running over rocky terrain in the midnight darkness at 10,000 feet, you’d better learn how to pick your way through in all kinds of weather.

And the canyons at Shades with their running water, slippery rocks, and leaf-covered paths force you to focus on exactly where to put your feet, how to recover when you slip, when to slow down, how to resist that temptation to leap to a rock hiding a slippery edge that can knock you on your butt, or shoulder, or head. You build up the muscle strength in ankles and feet that you’ll need when you’re at high altitude, haven’t slept for 30 hours, and treading difficult terrain at speed has to become second nature.

“This is my home park,” Greg told me, recalling many two hour runs through Shades during late fall, winter, and early spring when he’s been the only one there. I recalled his interest, ever since he returned to Indiana in 2002 from Pennsylvania, in the German-Americans who settled in Indiana, how he’s taken students across the state to get them acquainted with these places, how he helped bring Indiana poet laureate Norbert Kropf to campus last year. The goal of these long training runs in Shades may be racing in the mountains of the west, but they also bring an Indiana boy back to the state of his birth, and perhaps back to the reason he began running in the first place, now decades and many Wabash cross country races and many marathons ago.

Greg calls trail running “getting back to my cross country roots,” and the smile on his face as he rock hops and picks his way up Shawnee Canyon made me think of the fun I found as a boy running up desert canyons in Arizona and hopping the rocks in Oak Creek. The sheer joy of leaping and running like a kid through beautiful country.

Even walking through Shades, a place I, too, spent many hours hiking and weeks camping when my kids were younger, I was able to re-collect myself, slow down and breathe deeply enough to take in the beauty of the rocks, streams, the last leaves falling from canopy trees, the paw paws in the understory stubbornly hanging onto theirs.

Walking through Greg’s “home park” made it my own for a few hours. But just as I can only imagine what it’s like for Greg to run 100 miles, I can only imagine what it’s like for him to have been born in this state, to have run these hills and canyons as a young man then left for almost a decade, only to return to them now.

During my early morning reading the next day I encountered this quote from the writer Peter Matthiesson on the frontispiece of Scott Russell Sanders’ book The Force of Spirit. Maybe it fits here, maybe not. But they’re good words to end on.

“The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses there is a source for this deep restlessness, and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home.”

Greg’s article will appear in the Winter 2010 issue of Wabash Magazine, which mails in March.