In the Spring/Summer of 1995, a companion and I took a hippie dippy, don’t wash for days, eat baguettes exclusively, backpacking trip through Europe to ‘find ourselves’. Truth be told, it was I who was on a quest to figure out who and what I was supposed to be or become (spoiler alert: I didn’t find what I was looking for and I’m not entirely sure if I have yet). My companion was one of those people who always sees a path laid out before them, formulates a precise plan to arrive where they just know they’re going to end up, and possesses the ambition and energy to get there. In fact, this trip was not part of her blueprint at all but was a concession to my whining about potentially never being happy otherwise. Anyway, after about a month of scouring the Southern part of the continent without locating, just yet, who I was, we decided it was time to try another tack and head North, eventually setting our sights on Scandinavia.
During the planning phase of this whole trip, months before our eventual departure, we booked open-ended plane tickets and a Eurail pass each. I have no idea if these passes still exist, but I thought they were a brilliant idea because they gave us unlimited train and ferry travel throughout most of the continent, so long as we were willing to forego any chance of sitting in First Class. Let’s face it, if you’re comfortable with the idea of going showerless for six, seven, even eight days at a stretch, and pooping in a hole, a basic seat on a train will do just dandy-o. The beauty of the Eurail pass, to me, was that we knew that travel expenses no longer needed to be factored into daily vagabond life, thus freeing up valuable brain cells to figure out other concerns such as where to sleep and what to eat. It was because of this feature that I found myself pouting like a fourth-grader in the Berlin train station waiting to board our train to Copenhagen. My companion had become fed up with long, overnight train voyages, sitting up in a marginally comfortable seat for ten or eleven hours, and decided to dip into our very limited cash reserves to pay for upgrades to a private sleeping car. This was exactly the type of First World, over-the-top, unnecessary, character-eroding, decadent, extravagant indulgence that this whole trip, at least for me, was a desperate attempt to avoid. Her decision was logical and probably correct, but I was having none of it. I was in Europe to discover new experiences from the perspective of the proverbial Romantic wanderer. Logic, calculation, science were not my guiding principles. She, of course, ignored my childishness and we boarded the train and found our compartment.
The moment we arrived in our private little sleeper, stowed our backpacks, and laid down on our hammock-like cots, my mood changed. This was a wonderful escape, and I was asleep before the lights were out and prior to my head actually hitting the pillow. That’s right, a pillow, a luxury my tired ear had not felt since the flight from Montreal to Paris more than a month prior. I slept like a dead man, until, of course, I woke up with an urgent need to urinate at three in the morning. When I opened my eyes, everything was super dark. Like BLACK dark; darker than ever before dark. It was so dark, in fact, that it felt as though time, and the train, stood still. I could see nothing, and I could not feel the train jiggling as it normally does when in motion. I was flummoxed and tried, in vain, to wipe the sleep from my eyes and the stupid from my brain. I mean, how is it possible that we couldn’t be moving? To my freshly woken mind, it just didn’t make any sense. Of course the train was moving; it had to be. How would we get to where we were going otherwise? For a brief moment, I thought that perhaps I was dead, but then came to my senses figuring that I wouldn’t be able to experience this hallucination, or have the ability to be confused, if I was dead, so I got up and walked out of the compartment. There was dim lighting in the corridor allowing me to see inside the other compartments which were all empty as were all the seats in the Third-Class section, something I found odd because they were full to capacity when we left Berlin. There were no sounds at all emanating from the train itself, it was still quite dark, and there seemed to have been a mass evacuation while I slept. Even my companion was gone. This was a Twilight Zone episode, and I was beginning to get a little freaked out. I decided to continue to feel my way down the aisle when I thought I saw something moving about twenty metres ahead of me. I was certain I had seen another passenger, but assumed I was mistaken because this figure made a sharp right-hand turn at the end of the car, a move only made when de-training and highly ill-advised from a vehicle travelling in excess of 100 km/hr. Concerned I was witnessing a suicide attempt, I hurried after him, but when I approached the limit of the car, the figure had vanished. He had, indeed, turned right, and had absolutely exited the car. He did not, however, kill himself because beyond the threshold of the exit doors was not the expected desolate nightscape stampeding by at great speed, but a well-lit vestibule with a stairway at the far end. Still quite puzzled as to what wormhole existed at the top of the stairs, I decided to follow Alice through the Looking Glass to the logical end of this escapade and climbed the staircase. At the top was a wide-open space that resembled a very low-budget version of a cruise ship with people mindlessly mulling around sipping drinks.
As it happened, the train was on a ferry crossing a portion of the Baltic Sea. The whole scenario was made even more strange because I fell asleep on a moving train but woke up on a stationary one which, in turn, was now on a moving boat. My sleep reality was incongruous with my awake state, and it took a while to figure it all out.
For the better part of the last two years, though I have had much success with my running performance, going faster than ever before (which is pretty cool because I am now 52), I hadn’t really been enjoying myself on the majority of my run sessions. I’m not exactly sure why this has been the case, but I suspect that it has something to do with my obsession with going fast and getting faster. As a result of this, there has been no feeling of adventure and all of my outings have been restricted to the road or track. This hasn’t always been the case. I used to run ultramarathons for which almost all of my training was slower and took place in the mountains on a variety of trails. I ran in the early hours of the morning, at high-noon, and even dead-smack in the middle of the night. Every single time I would lace up my shoes I knew I was going to embark upon an adventure, and I loved it. Recently (in the last three months or so), with COVID having successfully stripped me of all the races I had been registered for, I have not felt the necessity to go all-in on a mind-numbing quest for speed. Lately, I have been able to slow down and head for the hills again, and, as a result, I have found my passion for the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other on a trail, in a forest with nothing but nature all around me. Because of this, my goals have shifted, and I have decided to take up ultrarunning again, longing to go as far as my body will permit. Due to this reunification with ‘real’ running, I have felt happier than I have in years, no longer allowing myself to be overly concerned with using my ‘time’ or ‘speed’ as the sticks against which I measure the success of my performance, and I have turned my attention to the significantly more primal measure of the satisfaction a run can bring: DISTANCE. My Instagram and Facebook friends and followers have, I’m sure, grown tired of, and bored to tears with, my posts, all of which depict me running on the many trails and paths near my home. Man, I have been having so much fun. That is until I felt a bit of a ‘pop’ and a significant amount of sharp, acute pain in my right knee about twenty kilometres into a 30k run a few weeks ago, causing me to adopt the very same running technique, minus the heroics, grace, patience, and bravery, of course, as the late Terry Fox. The rest of the way home was torture, not only because, through the typical stubbornness of an endurance athlete, I kept trying unsuccessfully to ignore the agony emanating from underneath my kneecap, only to be instantly and shockingly reminded that damage had most definitely been done making it futile to believe I could merely brave the pain, but because with every twinge of stabbing pain, I felt myself falling deeper into a depressive, gloomy mental funk. I knew in an instant that the popping sound signaled official injury, and every footfall thereafter confirmed the fact that it would be quite some time before I would be able to run again.
That night I went to bed miserable, expecting a restless battle to find sleep. For two long hours my mind raced fruitlessly to come to terms with what had happened, and I consciously tried to summon a non-existent gene that had been left out of my personal DNA sequence that would give me the ability to ‘look at the bright side’. No, I was not blessed with that gene, being given the ‘Fuck you, brooding, prone to depression’ one instead. The fact is, there is no ‘bright side’ here. Running, especially recently, is how I know who I am. It is, in large part, what defines me and separates who I am from the masses of people existing around me. Not only is it how I know myself, but also how everyone I know perceives me. I am not ‘me’ if I cannot run. Take the runner away and what is left is someone that neither I nor anyone else can recognize. It is what makes me remotely interesting; it is my ‘impressive’ force.
I was about to give up entirely on sleep when it came unannounced, and I fell deeply into the most wonderful, therapeutic slumber whereby I dreamt of running. For several hours my knee was cured, and I ran in all my favourite places. Local trails were magically stitched to paths in New York’s Central Park, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, the Devil’s Backbone trail in Montana, the Pacific Crest trail in Mount Hood, and the fells of the Isle of Skye. Not only did my knee no longer hurt, but my spirits soared, and I was so content. Everything felt so very real; so real, in fact, that I got to the point where I completely forgot about my knee at all. It wasn’t that in my dream I had been cured, but that the injury had never occurred in the first place.
At 4:30, my alarm went off and I excitedly reached over to silence it. There always exists a pause in complete consciousness of a few minutes between waking up physically and the possession of full mental acuity. It is a brief moment of fogginess as my cerebral systems fire up one by one until I fully comprehend where I am, what day it is, and what to do next. Thinking does happen during this time, but it is quite low on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is basic, shallow, animalistic thought usually centred around food and other simple pleasures. When I woke, my mind was still high from the blissful state my dreams had caused, and I took those first few minutes to plan out where I was going to run that morning. I even leaned over to check the weather forecast on my phone while still in bed, so that I would know what to wear. The app said it was nine degrees Celsius meaning I could wear shorts. Next, I threw off the covers, sat on the edge of the bed so I could reach down and find my T-shirt in the darkness, and stood to get up. As soon as I was upright with all of my bodyweight on my legs, reality hit like a sledgehammer causing all of the switches in my brain to turn on at once (including, of course, the one that detects physical pain), and I was struck, in the blink of an eye, with a heavy wave of depressive force far greater than mere gravity offers. In a nanosecond all the joy I experienced whilst asleep was swept away by a deep feeling of gloom as the entire world turned a dull, night-shift-fog, tooth-ache shade of grey. I felt so profoundly dispirited. Nothing had any lustre whatsoever, and I was officially depressed. Just as was the case on the that train to Copenhagen, my sleep reality did not mesh with that of my awake one. I had gone to bed broken, and it doesn’t matter what happened overnight because when I awoke, I was still broken. A train on a boat is till just a train.
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Now you know what it felt like to be awakened from a deep sleep at 3:00am by a 7 year-old weeping “I’ve got aching knees”. A hot soak in the bathtub helped then. Maybe still now?
Great read! A train on a boat is still just a train – I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.