by Dante Zappala

“I’ll show you my hill if you show me yours.” That was the gist of the conversation Alfredo and I had as we embarked on our run. We had a loose framework for the mileage we wanted to put in, but, otherwise, we had no plan.

Human civilization could be defined by men wanting to conquer the world and killing each other in the process. The way we hit those hills was a microcosm of that phenomenon. We tore up Ashland Avenue in Conshohocken followed by Shawmont off the Schuylkill River Trail. After some friendly conversation on Forbidden Drive, we popped off the last two miles as fast as we could on our way back to Rittenhouse Town.

Moments can be engrossing. They can make us forget as much as they make us realize. Habits and routines build fortresses that can become jails. Moments are the great escape. But they can’t really be sought. They have to be embraced when they come along.

I trailed Alfredo each time we made these poorly disguised assertions of male dominance. But I kept him in sight and kept getting closer. My focus was in forgetting – forgetting that he’s just flat out better than me. He just raced a mile in 4:05. I’ll never do that. But does that mean he has to crush me on my hill?

I’m in the process of trying to redefine the norm. I’m upping my mileage and resetting my goals. In doing so, there’s mental baggage that needs to get dropped off at Good Will. Much of what got me here is no longer useful. The paces are faster, the miles are longer, the workouts are more intense.

This isn’t easy. I tend to accumulate possessions. T-shirts are the worst because they tell stories. My mother brings them back as gifts from her trips. I get them at races. I still have a Denver Nuggets Dikembe Mutombo jersey that I’ll never wear. Why is it still in my house, exactly?

Material possessions ultimately are easy enough to deal with. The shirts are out of circulation. They’re packed up somewhere and not taking away from my living space. Mental possessions are much more difficult to deal with.

The run Alfredo and I did fell on the seventh anniversary of my dad’s passing. I didn’t mention it to him because I wasn’t thinking about it too much. As we raced through the Valley, a place that was sacred to my dad, a place where he spent a countless portion of his life, I thought only about pressing the pace. I thought about how fatigued my legs felt and that I should be conscious about lifting them high enough to avoid tripping.

Later, I would meet my mom and my step-mom back down in the Valley for our annual remembrance of my dad, the man who was a husband to each of them for some time. They refer to themselves as wife-in-laws. We dropped flowers into the creek but it wasn’t overly sentimental as it has been in years past. I felt free of grief.

I don’t think this was new. I miss my dad, of course, but I haven’t felt overwhelming sadness for a while. Tragedy and pain have a way of defining us. Naturally, some wounds will always be tender. Yet they can become interference, obstructions to the next step we need to take. The effort is to define ourselves not by these events but by our understanding of them. Or, we can reject that we can be defined at all.

On a Sunday evening, I headed out for a run to a sideways look from my wife. “Didn’t you run this morning?” she asked rhetorically. She had grown accustomed to me running every day – but now two-a-day? That was different, abstract. She had a sense of caution.

Caution is valuable in running. It’s easy to overdo it. But it ultimately becomes a tool to deny the moment when you know you’ve made a leap. It can appear unfathomable, even as it happens in full color. The only way to trust it is to get to know it, to do it more and more often until it becomes the new normal. Eventually, the old stuff finds its way to the curb as if it knows its own irrelevance.

And without that weight, there is no telling how fast you can run.