Somehow, I’m on the track an hour before dawn, a thick neoprene sleeve on my lower left leg, a bulky knee brace on my right. My gate is somewhere between shambling and wince-inducing. I feel like a newbie, like I did almost three years and three thousand miles ago when I took up running again, heavy and puffing in my sweatband and grey hoodie.
About a month ago, my athletic legacy reappeared with a deep plastic-y crunch in my knee. At the time, I thought that was it, the Big One, the one I compulsively imagine over and over in graphic detail. The end of the line for me.
It was bad, but not the end. Since the re-injury, I’ve rehabbed in the pool and on the exercise bike on the brink of panic. With all else going on in my life, I need to run. I am almost driven to distraction with worry because it feels like nothing else will do. (Who’s got two grand for a bike? And I abhor the pool.)
And finally, this morning I’m back on the track, trying for five agonizingly slow miles of ovals, when I see two astonishing things.
The first is my son.
I’m usually surprised to the point of letting out a shriek when I come across another runner in the dark on the track. But this morning, I heard him coming. Fast. He fell in stride for a moment.
Who is this rangy dude? Young. Must be a student. Bubba? Bubba!
“Hi, Dad.” And he’s off. And I can’t help but think how beautiful he is, striding away in the moonlight. He laps me again and I try to tempt him to run a lap at my oldster pace, but no dice. “Just a mile today.” And he’s gone.
I’m back to staring at my slow moving feet and the lengthening shadow cast by the moon when another shadow glides silently over me. A bird, its rounded wingtips crisply outlined, the dark wingspan reaching the outer lane lines on either side of mine — it hovers over me and for a long moment our shadows merge, and I’m winged.
I look up and see the owl and his mate shear off, head for the black silhouette of the tree line, and disappear.
That’s one too many for me: I shiver and my eyes fill.
I am thrilled with gratitude — to be there, running, and because I suddenly remember why my boy has come out to run in the pre-dawn chill. I’m distracted momentarily by a dark thought — isn’t the owl a terrible sign in some cultures? That image is quickly swept away by the realization that my son and I are out here for similar reasons. For a bit of atonement, in an honest attempt to do better. Striving to be worthy.
Then I remember my owl. The one I want for this morning. The one perched on the shoulder of Athena.