Life in the Slow Lane

I’m getting to know our town up close, one jog at a time

Thom Fountain, illustrated by Luke Benson

I recently started running again. Not from anything in particular, though maybe I’m fleeing from a bit of my winter weight and lackadaisical ways. I used to think of myself as an avid runner. I was on the cross country team in high school (though to be completely honest, that might’ve had more to do with a potential romance than the elation of your feet hitting the sidewalk with a rhythmic pace) and dating even earlier than that I’d run 5Ks and 10-milers with my dad.

But that was an old me. When I moved to Eau Claire in 2008 I quickly forgot about running, first replacing it with biking around town and the occasional game of hoops on campus. Then fitness just became something that simply didn’t exist in my life. The only endurance exercise I was putting in was making it from happy hour to bar close on a Friday.

From my slow jogs around town I’ve found patterns in which houses have people sitting on their porches to wave to and which trees have prematurely started shedding their leaves. I’m even starting to find familiarity in the cracking of paint on a fire hydrant I often stop near to wait for traffic.

Now that I’m back on the ol’ wagon (or, well, not on the wagon because I’m on foot? I don’t know – let’s run with it), I’ve discovered that Eau Claire is a lot different when you’re not buzzing through the streets on car or even bike. The slow (and my particularly slow) pace of a distance runner gives you time to observe, focus and take things in. It forces you to really see the city as it is. And it’s a welcome distraction to focus on anything other than the terrible throbbing in your thighs and your gasping breath.

Most of my routes take me around the Third Ward (representin’ my ’hood), downtown, Randall Park, Water Street, and UW-Eau Claire’s campus. These are all areas I thought I knew like the back of my hand, having lived, worked, and recreated in them all for years. Yet by just slowing down and adding a soundtrack (lately I’ve been running to The National and other dad-rock because Jock Jams throws off my pacing by encouraging me to sprint, pump my arms and scream “Whoomp! There it is!” at the top of my lungs), I’ve been able to discover the intricacies of my own community.

You know when you drive the same route every day you figure out exactly where each pothole is? How long each stoplight lasts? Even the sounds of the road beneath your tires as you go from new asphalt to old concrete? You get that while running too, but with details more nuanced than those of the basic street structure – details that are probably more relevant for those of us who aren’t civil engineers. From my slow jogs around town I’ve found patterns in which houses have people sitting on their porches to wave to and which trees have prematurely started shedding their leaves. I’m even starting to find familiarity in the cracking of paint on a fire hydrant I often stop near to wait for traffic. I know the smell of every restaurant I pass and the number of steps that lead up the walking bridge.

These details are mostly inane and useless, but they contribute to a larger sense that I feel at home; this sense of belonging. That’s my tree. That’s my fire hydrant. This is my neighborhood. While before I had roads and stoplights, now I have a community.

There’s this garden on Rust Street, not more than four blocks from my house, which I’ve probably driven past a hundred times and never noticed. It’s gorgeous, with seemingly overflowing flowers and tall grasses. Now I run past it a few times a week and have noticed it changing over the summer. It took a decrease in my speed and an increase in my attention for me to see this gem, and I think I’m better for it. So are my gut, heart, and lungs probably.

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