Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chasing the Gingerbread Man (Why I Run)

New Jersey, for all its charms, is the most densely populated state in America.

So a favorite running route takes me far away from the crowds… to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which is just up a lonely country road near the campus where I work in Morris County.

The owl in the tree
Early yesterday, I found myself utterly alone there, staring up at a young, downy-feathered barn owl in the branches of a tree.

Investigating further, I saw a nest on a higher branch, so I guessed that the owl fell from there and didn’t yet know how to fly.

“I can’t fly either,” I explained lamely, making a mental note to report the sighting at the park’s education center in case something could or should be done to help.

Resuming my run, I thought of how much the scenery reminded me of the summers I spent in Morris County as a boy, at my grandparents’ house in what was then a similarly remote area.

My grandfather and me
The outside air still smells the same here, and I expect to turn and find my grandfather nearby. We spent many days walking together along back country roads just like this. He would talk to me about gardening or raising chickens, teach me the names of trees and flowers, or tell me corny jokes or improbable stories that I later learned were folk and fairy tales.

Still, he’d think it silly that a grown man would go running for exercise, when there was always real work to be done outdoors.

“Run, run, run as fast as you can!” I can imagine him taunting me now.


My grandfather died long ago, and he would have no idea what my life is like today when I return to the office. All the traffic on Route 287 just to get here. All the technology. All the people.

When I can’t get outside to exercise, I use the company gym, which is equipped with internet-connected exercise bikes with full-color monitors that offer a virtual-reality display of my ride… as if I were on a real bike on a pleasant Sunday ride among rolling hills. The resistance of the pedals matches the terrain, and even the leaves on the virtual trees are programmed to be green in summer months, colorful in fall and bare in winter.

Working out on an exercise bike, I connect my Bluetooth headphones and listen to a book or music, and get lost in the computerized scenery and pretend I am alone.

Unfortunately, the bike’s computer always offers up images of other virtual riders along the way. I don’t even have to swerve around them, though. I can ride right through them to pass. The computer also offers up many other riding scenarios that are far from realistic: a snow-covered trail where the Abominable Snowman makes an appearance; a game that lets me chase dragons; and one scenario where I am miniaturized into the elaborate world of a model railroad in the basement of a giant human and his backyard ruled by a giant cat.

It’s all in fun, and I’m sure my grandfather would have appreciated the whimsy.

But there’s one feature hard-wired into these virtual reality exercise bikes that literally haunts me: The program always presents the image of a ghost rider… an exact replication of a previous ride I’ve made on the same course… representing my “personal best.”

In the virtual world, I can try just a little bit harder and ride right through my own ghost, putting my past behind me.

It occurs to me that in real life, when I run, my brain is hard-wired to always chase a ghost of my former self too.

But in real life, no matter how hard I try, with each passing day, my grandfather – and my past -- recedes even further into the distance on the road ahead of me.

Run, run, run as fast as I can, I can’t catch him. He’s the Gingerbread Man.

This was originally posted on The Good Men Project site.

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