This article first appeared in OutdoorsNW, an adventure, travel, and recreational magazine for outdoorsy types in the beautiful Northwest.
In my early twenties, I was an Air Force staff sergeant working for the Electronic Security Command in Europe. I think that’s all I am allowed to tell you about my job except that my windowless office was located deep within a secure compound nestled in the woods in what was then West Germany. I wore steel-toed combat boots and camos during the week, but on weekends I layered up in tight pink ski pants, a puffy coat, and my striped pom-pom hat to hit the powdery slopes of the Black Forest. In the summer, it was shorts, a T-shirt, and Ray-Bans as I headed to Austria for sunny glacier skiing.
It was 1988; the year I started running.
During my four-year assignment, I learned how to speak German from the neighbors, which meant I could chat about mowing the lawn, feeding horses, and anything related to beer and its consumption. I told my neighbors that I was taking up running to strengthen my ski legs, but what I really needed was a release. The pressure of working in a high-security environment weighed on me. Being able to head out the door and run down the streets of Kirchberg, my little village of 1,247, set me free.
But freedom can look funny
Old farmers offered hesitant waves, their mouths agape with cigarettes dangling precariously as I jogged by. Women clutched wicker shopping baskets as they stared from the doorways of butcher shops and bakeries. After a few weeks of much gawking by adults and endless pointing by children, I decided to run on the outskirts of town. I was treated to horses greeting me from barn windows and endless views of rolling hills dotted with pointed church spires poking up from neighboring towns. The lush green pastures reminded me of the young alfalfa crops growing back home in Central Oregon.
My runs were short–maybe 3 to 5 miles–and completely void of strategy. My clothing was simple: a 100% cotton T-shirt and gray sweat pants. Without even realizing its excellent wicking properties, I donned my olive drab, government-issue wool sweater on chilly mornings. If the cold, thick fog settled in the valley, I wore a heavy Gor-Tex ski jacket made even heavier by the freezing fog crystals that collected around the collar.
It was never about the “stuff”
My shoes were the only “gear” I owned and certainly would not be classified as running shoes by today’s standards. Even so, I made a special trip to buy them. Globus was a warehouse-style store 46 miles away where they offered, with equal zeal, samples of apple schnapps and flea medicine. It was also the only place you could get “sport” shoes in a wide selection of colors (blue or white) and styles (striped or plain). While serious runners were discovering the Adidas ZX8000 or Nike’s Air Stab, (named for stability–a feature I would later learn to appreciate), I chose the blue shoes. I have no idea what brand they were only that they were slightly lighter than my combat boots.
Since my work socks proved too thin and my fuzzy, knee-highs designed for skiing pooled around my ankles like Jane Fonda leg warmers, Globus was also my shop for socks. A cheap Timex from the jewelry department completed my collection of must-haves. It was years before my Garmin watch would help me track miles, elevation, and pace.
Fast is always relative anyway
For me, racing was also years away unless you count the military’s required annual fitness run. The field of desk job runners from my unit was a mixed bag of readiness. Some power walked the one and half mile loop around our compound. Some sprinted at the start then dragged themselves to the finish. Since I ran regularly, I managed without much struggle. In fact, it would be the only time in my life I would enjoy being in the lead pack! Well, close to the lead pack.
While 1988 was my first year of running, it didn’t become a serious habit until 15 years later. Since then, my closet has evolved into a jumble of sweat-wicking tech clothes, shoes for every terrain, and all things breathable. I toe the line now on both roads and trails with my goal of negative splits. Though the gear and strategies have changed, the release I feel inside when I run, has not.
I am not sure if those short jaunts through my German village made me a stronger skier. What I do know is that running set me free of my cramped office in the woods where nature was kept away by layers of doors and fences. So I ran often until the neighbors got used to seeing me, the kids stopped pointing and laughing…. and through the happy and amazing week in November of the following year when the Berlin wall came down.