July 8, 2016
I’d been looking forward to Indiana. I’d planned to run Indiana the day after my birthday on a Lake Michigan road trip with one of my best friends. I was finally in shape physically, emotionally, socially, romantically and in career. All at the same time. There had been no other instance of running in 31 states in which that had been true. What would it mean to run in a new state now that I was finally happy?
My friend Rachel and I had already decided that the run would take place at Indiana Dunes State Park, a place I’d read about and took up a lot of space on a map, which I considered a good sign. We started the morning with a filling breakfast in a Victorian B and B in Valparaiso, spent an hour in a gourmet popcorn shop, and visited Michael Jackson’s boyhood home in Gary. It was pretty much the perfect day.
On the state park map there were lots of options of places to run. I’d picked a park adjacent to the main dunes area thinking that it would have more running options than just beach. It also seemed quicker and easier to get to. I didn’t want Rachel to have to spend any more time on my mission than necessary. But, even as we drove into the lot near the park, I sensed this may not be the dynamic dune run I was hoping for. Then a man carrying a camera and tripod approach our car which, I should point out, was a white Mustang convertible with red leather seats. He asked what sort of hike we were looking for. I explained that I was running a 5K in every state. I said I wanted a run that had some dunes. He suggested the adjacent state park and then hesitated, “There’s a fee. Are you limited on funds?” We said no, in hopes that on the off-chance he planned rob us in the wilderness we could still present ourselves as modest spenders who just happened to be driving a fancy car. He emphasized that the dunes were really the best place to run, if we weren’t limited on funds, which turned out to be nine dollars. That settled it: we headed to dunes. As soon as the man was out of earshot Rachel laughed and asked why he kept asking if we were limited on funds. “I know!” I said. “We’re driving a Mustang, you’re wearing Michael Kors sunglasses, and I’m holding a hot pink Kate Spade wallet.” I blasted “Free Bird,” laughing as the wind blew through our hair on the way to the beach.
The man in the parking lot was right. This was the spot to run. On that partly sunny Friday before the 4th of July the parking lot, dunes and beach were already getting full. A large brick shelter housed bathrooms, changing rooms, showers and a snack bar. Although the shelter looked like it had been built in the past few years, I felt the presence of generations of families on summer vacations. Some of whom were my own family and friends. I was excited to become a part of vacation history.
After my 32nd state documentation photo I quickly determined that this run wouldn’t be the mix of dunes, trails and beach I had hoped for. The dunes, while absolutely stunning, were not anything I could run up and down for three miles. It would be a beach 5K as in Rhode Island and Alabama. I don’t necessarily mind running on sand, but it is a challenge. In Indiana, the beach was so narrow that I barely had enough wet, runnable sand. The run was less of a run and more of game to escape the ever-approaching waves. At 12-minute miles, the pace was also two minutes slower than my average easy pace, making the endeavor even less like a run and more like some sort of boot camp challenge. I ran 1.6 miles down the beach and then turned around. As I leaped over waves I thought about how close I came to getting soaked. Was it luck or skill? How much of this success was in my control? And then I stepped in the water. Half of my supportive, stability Brooks running shoe sunk in the cool water of Lake Michigan. And it wasn’t so bad. The thing I’d been avoiding had happened. It was a small relief to know what it felt like to momentarily fail. After it happened the first time I was less worried about it happening again. So, perhaps more casually dodging the waves, I did get wet, just a little bit, over and over. It was kind of fun to not have things go exactly the way I wanted. I had already done that for 31 states and I had come out ok. I finished that run with a wet foot but the rest of me sun-kissed and happy. The waves hadn’t won.
After I’d used the changing rooms to get back into my navy polo dress I thought about pushing for success. Rachel and I had pushed high speeds roaring up the coast in our Mustang. I’d pushed my luck by running as close as I could to the waves without getting completely soaked. But someday I would be soaked. Someday my running, health, friends, guy, job wouldn’t be perfect. I’d been there before. In fact, all those things might be highly imperfect all at the same time. I’d been there before too. And when that day comes again I hope I’ll be better prepared.
But today was not that day. So I’ll just remember dancing among the waves feeling lucky as ever.