30 September 2010

Bizarrely Beautiful

[ Ed note: This is the last of three articles on Reach the Beach. ]

Reach the Beach was a thirty-six hour blur. Between leaving home at 7:30 AM Friday to returning at 7:30 PM Saturday, I have to think hard and refer to paper records to remind myself of what happened at any given time. Not sleeping will do that to you. But one image is burned in my mind with intense clarity; an image that frames the entire experience, an image of bizarre beauty, and image that will be impossible to convey in words, but I’ll try.

How often do you see or experience something entirely apart from your previous experience? Visit a new place of sublime natural beauty? The mountains or dunes may be different, but you’ve seen beautiful vistas before. See a new movie, concert, or show? They may be new works, to be sure, but they are more or less new variations on familiar concepts. In general, once past our younger years, our ‘new’ experiences aren’t all that new. And you could argue that what I’m about to describe wasn’t all that new either, but it sure struck me as such.

To begin with, the whole idea of a string of runners spanning over fifty miles is pretty unique, but it’s not something you can take in all at once. Still, it makes an impression, as you drive for tens of hours through the day, through the night, never more than a minute or so from the next runner stretched out in a line before you. When darkness falls (Thud! …as I say to my daughters…) that line takes on an ethereal quality as the runners themselves vanish, replaced by bouncing blinky lights and the various shapes of reflective stripes worn by runners of various shapes. It’s like a fifty-mile-long stretched out line of Christmas lights, in a way.

My first shift came as blackness overtook day, and so my first vision of this was from road level. But that first shift was on a road with enough traffic, interrupting the placid red bobbing procession, making it interesting but not all that impressive. Subsequent shifts seen from the relative comfort of the van brought this home. And on the last shift of our van’s evening round, I got a preview of what would later burn into my head as the signature image of the event.

It was about 9:30 PM when our number twelve runner Bill took the baton at Echo Lake State Park, somewhere in the voids of central New Hampshire. Unique to this leg, the RTB Overlords aimed him out the back entrance of the park – a route he later described as utter darkness – while we motorized types used the main entrance and looped around to rejoin the course. Down the road we stopped for the usual mid-leg cheering, but for some reason this time it was really, really, really dark. And really, really quiet. And, odd for the area, flat and straight. And devoid of all traffic save a van now and then.

It left an impression. Standing in the road, it felt like an enveloping dark, punctuated only by the passing, every half minute or so, of a bobbing headlamp attached to a heavily breathing set of footsteps and blinky lights. Nothing but quiet, dark, and poetically lonely runners. Peaceful. And beautiful, in a way.

A peace unfortunately shattered by the frenetic activity and klieg lights of the net Vehicle Transition Area, my subsequent hopeless attempts to get some sleep during our van’s off-time, the rude 2:30 AM rising. We were back on the road again, my head in a semi-zombie state till 5 AM, when I found myself at the Gilmanton School – a town I’d never heard of – shivering from cold and my sleep-deprived body’s inability to regulate its temperature, itching to start my leg, my heart, my blood flow.

When the time came, it was somehow even darker than during our stop on Bill’s leg. The moon was supposed to be at half-phase, and though we didn’t see it during Bill’s phase, it probably raised the level of darkness from complete to merely utter. By 5 AM, it had set, and once away from the lights of the school, complete blackness pervaded, except, of course, the minute quanta of light that each runner’s lamps emitted.

When it’s dark enough, you realize that an LED headlamp burns with a cold super-white, almost blue-tinged light. You also realize that while the quantity of light it casts might be relatively small – certainly smaller than what you’d like when your goal is to illuminate on the road in front of you, the laws of physics are real, and if unimpeded, that light will go on effectively forever.

The air was cold, crisp, and indeed, optically unimpeding. The road, at this point, straight. The light did go on effectively forever. As I approached and passed each runner, the reflections it returned from their reflectors far outshone their blinky lights, but because the beam bobbed with each stride and sway of my head, the effect was almost strobe-like, somewhat magical, completely surreal. And then came the ‘wow’ moment.

The next runner I approached was wearing half tights and a form-fitting top, all black, nothing baggy waving in the breeze. On each arm, each leg, and in several other places, his togs had double sets of long thin silver-white reflective strips built in. Additionally, his reflective vest was snug, not prone to any spare movement, and his blinky light was built in. There was no stray movement in any clothing; all was completely coordinated with his body’s motion. Taken as a whole, in the cold harsh light of the LED, his black-clad body vanished into the night, replaced by a series of lights, mostly reflected, that perfectly, almost digitally, recorded his every movement. It was kind of a cross between the concept of those round measurement points painted all over a crash test dummy and a very funky computer-generated simulation of human movement. It was a way I’d never really seen a human before. A study in fluid movement. A study in form. Utterly unique. Utterly cool.

But there was another component which added to the effect. It was cold, in the high forties, dry, crisp, perfect steam weather. And so every second, this computer-generated motion study became a human steam locomotive, bursting a cloud of exhalation that blew up and over his head, capturing the cold light in a blast that appeared, roiled, and quickly vanished out of my beam. It too took on an almost artificial computer-generated quality.

The moment lasted for all of twenty to thirty seconds as I got close enough to get the full power of my beam on this vision, then just as rapidly evaporated as I passed him and moved on to my next prey. I’d pass plenty more runners on this leg, but none with that combination of clothing, form, motion, light, and steam; that power of impression. I’m certain he had no idea of the impact that his gear and the conditions had created. But for me it burned into my memory an image that somehow embodied the whole idea of Reach the Beach. Human form vanquishes all, including night, to carry on toward out goal.

Yeah, I suppose you had to be there. But trust me, bizarrely beautiful barely begins to describe it.

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