It is the best of runs, it is the worst of runs…the Christmas Day run in Birmingham, Alabama. The best because of the optimism, the annual re-setting of life’s goals that Christmas brings, I promise to get fit, promise to write more, promise to be a better man. I believe it for a day. The worst because of the egg casserole this morning, the bottles of Stella Artois last night, the overall gluttony of the season and the hills in every direction. I feel like I’m dragging a blocking sled behind me. I haven’t run in months, that’s an annual plight, somehow caught up with year-end tasks and done in by year-end pessimism. My weight has gone up and my desire has gone down, I’ve been here before.
The good news about spending Christmas Day in a foreign land – I’ve been coming here off and on for 20 years and it’s still foreign – is that you don’t have a lot of responsibilities. Make a drink, recycle the wrapping paper, write down who gives Miles what, that’s about it. Miles, our only child, loves it. He has aunts, uncles, cousins doting on him, lavishing pirate ships and safaris, footballs and reptile dvds. It allows an hour to go for a run – if I could only run for an hour.
I make my way out of the driveway, slowly, knowing the hill looms. It’s the type of hill that keeps you in the house, just knowing it’s out there. Too early in the trip, you can’t warm up to the task, there is no runner’s high, no zone, it’s cold blood. I plod, like a 4-mile chaser on fumes, like Rick’s Natural Star in the Breeders’ Cup. Climbing and cursing, I can feel the plaque stripping off my arteries. I want to throw up and I’ve only run a quarter mile. I hate this hill.
At the stop sign, there is a choice, left and uphill, not as steep but still a rise. Right and downhill. Actually, it’s not a choice, I can’t climb another step, I make a right and head downhill, my heart beginning to get back in my chest. My legs feel fine, muscle memory I guess. I could have a heart attack and go right here. Then I see a runner in the distance, he’s going up, I get it together enough to offer a wave and a “Merry Christmas.” It comes out shakily, like Miles’ leftover oatmeal spilling into the sink.
As the hill descends, I start to feel a semblance of control, take my first composed breath. I start to look around – see the reds and greens of wrapping paper muted below the white plastic trash bags already on the curb, a pine tree on its side – a naked shell of its past glory – lying next to a yellow mailbox, a son and daughter-in-law getting in their car to go back to Tuscaloosa or Huntsville, duty done. I make a left, along the double yellow road, hoping drivers are aware of the plodding middle-aged interloper. I make another left, one more line along my square, one more hill, this one is easier to endure, knowing it’s over at the top. I reach the top, slow down to a walk and call it a day. Run over. Christmas over.