A DEAD BODY ON MY MORN­ING RUN

Runner's World South Africa - - HUMAN RACE -

AT FIRST, I DIDN’T RE­ALISE WHAT I WAS look­ing at, or what was look­ing at me.

It was just af­ter sun­rise on a Satur­day morn­ing in Prospect Park, New York and I had been away from home for two weeks in Europe. Thanks to jet lag, I woke up early. Hop­ing to loosen up my planecon­stricted legs, I threw on a tank top, pants, and run­ning shoes for what felt like the first true spring day af­ter a long win­ter. The birds chirped, the sun shone, and as I made my way through the tree-lined paths, I felt bathed in a sense of joy at be­ing back home and alive.

About three kays into my run, I rounded a clear­ing and thought I saw a tree of some sort, a trunk or limb that had fallen into a grassy ex­panse. Two po­lice of­fi­cers worked to se­cure tape around the scene. Po­lice pres­ence is noth­ing new for New York­ers, so ini­tially I brushed it off and kept run­ning along the path, a curve that would bring me closer to the scene.

As I got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a log af­ter all: it was a body. It was ly­ing face up with arms reach­ing into the air, as if try­ing to grab at some­thing. Its legs were stretched out and ap­peared to be cov­ered in some­thing brown, what I ini­tially thought was mud. Around it was a cir­cle of dark dirt that al­most made the per­son look like he was emerg­ing from the earth. Po­lice of­fi­cers tried to shield the scene with a sheet, but it was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble, given the curve of the jog­ging path around the grass.

I sucked in a deep breath, and not be­cause I was run­ning too fast. I stopped my mileage tracker and sat on a kerb nearby as other run­ners slowed down to do the same, many ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the same gasp that I had.

“God, that takes the wind out of you,” said a man in a blue shirt with a head­band.

We stood and stared from the jog­ging path, pop­ping our ear­buds out, beads of sweat run­ning down our tem­ples. Any high I felt from my hol­i­day had been sucked out of me along with the wind. My legs, usu­ally re­li­able at push­ing me forward through the uni­verse, had mor­phed into two Tin Man tubes. It was a shock un­like any­thing I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

“Keep it mov­ing,” a cop told the stream of pedes­tri­ans; which, of course, only made many peo­ple want to slow down fur­ther.

Oth­ers trot­ted by not notic­ing, or giv­ing a glance and a shrug. A kid with a boom­box bolted by on a bike as Jay-Z blared into the tree­tops, the birds singing back. Af­ter what felt like an eter­nity, but what was prob­a­bly only a few min­utes, the cops placed a sheet over the body.

Then, some­one told us some­thing we could barely be­lieve – it was in­deed a man; a man who had set him­self on fire. AT VAR­SITY, I had bonded with a group of girl­friends over watch­ing Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Victims Unit dur­ing our first years in New York City. One of the

show’s most com­mon tropes is the hap­less jog­ger out for a morn­ing run who finds a body. I was al­ways cu­ri­ous why that was, and I credit the show for mak­ing me wary of leaf piles in parks for years.

Stand­ing in the park that day, I re­alised that no amount of tele­vi­sion would ever do jus­tice to how hor­ri­ble it is to see a life hav­ing just ended be­fore your eyes. I felt stupid ever to have thought oth­er­wise. I felt awash in a new wave of sym­pa­thy for my friends and col­leagues who are emer­gency-room doc­tors, war re­porters, mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, or oth­ers who reg­u­larly see such sights.

The PTSD from such wit­ness­ing doesn’t go away af­ter a day or two. I had never met this man, yet his death now im­pacted my life in a way that was go­ing to stick around far be­yond a news cy­cle.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body; nor was it the first time that run­ning and death had felt knot­ted to­gether in my life. For years, run­ning has helped me cope with my own losses, chiefly that of my mother when I was 17. My first marathon was on the an­niver­sary of her death, about two weeks af­ter I had cov­ered the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing. When I crossed the fin­ish line, I col­lapsed not just be­cause I was tired, but be­cause for the first time in the nine years since she’d died, I had ac­cepted the fact that she was never go­ing to be there at the end.

A few months later, my un­cle (her brother) died sud­denly, and I charged to the fin­ish line of the Philadel­phia Marathon weeks af­ter that. Other races have fol­lowed since, along with work stresses and heart­breaks, losses of a dif­fer­ent sort. Run­ning has been the one con­stant in a world where the ground of mor­tal­ity seems to con­stantly shift un­der my feet. At best, the sport of­fers struc­ture and con­fi­dence, but at worst, it can of­fer a false sense of con­trol: you can run the per­fect marathon, but your life is back out of your hands af­ter those few hours. The per­son you love and miss is still dead.

Al­though our cul­ture tells us that it’s proper to be sad when some­one dies, it’s gen­er­ally seen as less ac­cept­able to be an­gry. But the truth is, I was fu­ri­ous with my mom, and with the other peo­ple who have died in my life, and I had to pound that rage out on the tar. Con­sider it a sort of punch­ing with the feet, a per­cus­sive act that forces a body into a rhythm when the world feels com­pletely void of it. I’m far from alone in lac­ing up with a cal­loused heart, and I’ve long sus­pected that you have to be fu­ri­ous in some way, con­scious or not, to vol­un­tar­ily train to run 42.2km early on a Sun­day morn­ing. Maybe that’s why I’ve al­ways seen run­ning as a fuck-you to death. Run­ning takes the gen­tle act of walk­ing and di­als it up, forc­ing a greater aware­ness of breath, sweat, heart­beat, pulse, and mus­cles. It’s the abil­ity to use your body as a height­ened ves­sel of life. LATER ON I LEARNED that the body I saw be­longed to David Buckel, an ac­claimed en­vi­ron­men­tal and LGBT-rights at­tor­ney. Buckel helped fight the ban on gay par­tic­i­pants in the Boy Scouts, ve­he­mently pros­e­cuted on be­half of mur­der vic­tim Bran­don Teena in the case that in­spired the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, and had served as a di­rec­tor at Lambda Le­gal, a pi­o­neer­ing non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­motes gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der rights. He cited other protest sui­cides in a note, akin to what some monks have done to protest Chi­nese oc­cu­pa­tion of Ti­bet, in his own ef­forts to raise aware­ness around the de­struc­tive force of fos­sil fu­els. He was try­ing to demon­strate what he be­lieved fos­sil fu­els are do­ing to the Earth.

“I am David Buckel and I just killed my­self by fire as a protest sui­cide,” read a hand­writ­ten mes­sage left at the scene, ac­cord­ing to the New York Daily News. “I apol­o­gise to you for the mess.”

As much as I re­spect Buckel’s work and mis­sion, it’s hard for me to see his ac­tion as any­thing be­yond a pro­found act of suf­fer­ing. As I stood dumb­struck, star­ing at his corpse on that spring Satur­day, I saw an act of de­fi­ance, but also a cry against life. I thought of Mary Oliver’s line in Up­stream that “the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us” can be one and the same; I thought of the gen­tle calm of the can­dle on my cof­fee ta­ble and the vi­o­lence of Dante’s In­ferno now splayed be­fore me in an oth­er­wise serene park. Even­tu­ally I walked away and tried to run again; but a kilo­me­tre or two past the body I stopped, as I held back sobs. I in­hab­ited the same park as this man, but it may as well have been a dif­fer­ent uni­verse. I thought of the unimag­in­able amount of pain in his fi­nal mo­ments, how it was so far be­yond any­thing in my com­pre­hen­sion.

I made my way home, and slumped, wrung out by emo­tion, at my desk. I’m a writer by trade, but words of­ten feel in­ad­e­quate against the forces of dark­ness that can in­vade the mind. We can all do bet­ter with lis­ten­ing, we can all help peo­ple find their tools, be it ther­apy, writ­ing, ex­er­cise, or what­ever. I pawed through books, quotes, notes scat­tered around my flat, hop­ing that those smarter and wiser than me through the ages could help. That scram­ble led me to this pas­sage, from a 2015 New York Times op-ed writ­ten by Oliver Sacks, one of our great­est poet lau­re­ates, on life, death, and the body:

There will be no-one like us when we are gone, but then there is no-one like any­one else, ever. When peo­ple die, they can­not be re­placed. They leave holes that can­not be filled, for it is the fate – the ge­netic and neu­ral fate – of ev­ery hu­man be­ing to be a unique in­di­vid­ual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

No-one lives in our heads but us, a seem­ingly sim­ple, bare, raw fact that can get lost in the po­etry and plat­i­tudes. It is nec­es­sary for those of us alive and around to let those on the edge know they’d be missed, that they’re wor­thy of this planet, that we want and need them here.

It can be dan­ger­ous to think one can al­ways be a saviour for all who hurt in the world, but at the risk of sound­ing corny, I do think there’s a valid case to be made for hope: that there is beauty and good­ness worth fighting for in this world, even when we’re in our dark­est, most thread­bare mo­ments. I know that in my life, oth­ers have shown it to me, like a flash­light in the face; some­times with­out even re­al­is­ing it. The least I can do is try to re­turn the favour.

The next morn­ing, I woke up and I went for a run.

– Mary Pilon, a run­ner in New York, is the au­thor of The Kevin Show and The Mo­nop­o­lists.

Life­Line can be reached at 0861 322 322, and the SA De­pres­sion and Anx­i­ety Group

I saw new pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa jog­ging along the Prom­e­nade in Cape Town. He stopped reg­u­larly to take photos with fans. – BRITT HY­LAND, RW READER

I ran the same route al­most daily for nearly two years and passed this house of­ten enough to know they had a meat smoker in the back­yard. So when I passed by on my usual route one day, I didn’t give a se­cond thought to the black smoke bil­low­ing up from be­hind it. Mo­ments later, a po­lice car came ca­reen­ing around the cor­ner. The of­fi­cer sped up to the house, leapt out of the car, and sprinted to­ward it. I heard sirens coming from the other di­rec­tion, and within min­utes there were eight fire en­gines and two am­bu­lances clog­ging the street. The emer­gency re­spon­ders were dart­ing around fran­ti­cally, and I snuck wide-eyed into the neigh­bour’s back­yard. The back porch roof above the smoker was on fire. Luck­ily, the fire­men stopped it be­fore it spread and no one was home or in­jured. – ERIN BEN­NER, ART DI­REC­TOR

It was au­tumn 2015, and I was run­ning my favourite out-and-back route across a big road bridge. On my re­turn trip, I passed a woman work­ing mas­sive bat­tle ropes. She was alone, fiercely fo­cused, with bright, short white hair and dark skin, and she was just giv­ing these ropes ev­ery­thing – you could hear them smack the ground, bam, bam,

bam. They must have weighed 35, 40 ki­los at least. And she must have dragged them up the 100me­tre pedes­trian ramp to the top of the bridge! Best of all, the back­drop to all of this was the sun sink­ing be­low the hori­zon and light­ing up the city sky­line. I had to stop and take a photo of her. To me, she was the ul­ti­mate pic­ture of badassery. Some­times, when I’m sprint­ing in a race or grind­ing out a tough work­out, I’ll still think of her. – MARISSA STEPHEN­SON FEA­TURES DI­REC­TOR

When I was still in high school, I was run­ning down a dark street when I came upon a man in a suit and tie, pre­sum­ably leav­ing work. As I got close enough for him to hear me, he grabbed his brief­case and sprinted away – be­fore look­ing back, see­ing a 16-yearold run­ner, and slow­ing to a walk. I felt bad for star­tling him, but re­alised that no mat­ter how much we all think run­ning is a nor­mal part of life, it’s still not. It re­mains a de­fi­ant ac­tion against the seden­tary pace of mod­ern daily life. In this man’s mind, it was more likely that he was about to get mugged than that a jog­ger was headed his way. The mem­ory makes me feel bad for in­cit­ing such fear, but also proud that I’m out here run­ning through the city. – PETER BROMKA, RUN­NER AND WRITER I was three kays from home on the long­est run I’ve ever at­tempted. It was one of the hottest days of that sum­mer, and my legs were so fa­tigued I se­ri­ously thought about call­ing an Uber. As I crested the last hill on my route, I no­ticed some­thing glit­ter­ing in the flow­ers on the cen­tre is­land.

I crossed the road to see what had caught my eye; out of the mulch I pulled a Poké­mon card. It was Pan­goro. I’d chucked out my col­lec­tion of cards long ago, but see­ing this one brought me back to the days when my dad would buy me packs of cards from the petrol sta­tion. Back then, I never would have guessed one day I’d run al­most 50km at once. Cradling the shim­mery card in my sweaty hand, I knew I was go­ing to fin­ish that run. Whether it was Pan­goro’s ham­mer­fist power boost that got me through or just some good old child­hood nostalgia, I clinched my long­est run ever that day, and I’ve still got that Poké­mon card as a re­minder. – MOR­GAN PETRUNY, TEST EDITOR

In my first year at uni­ver­sity, I was out on a run with my cross­coun­try team when some­one sug­gested we take a short­cut across the river over a nar­row, rusty rail­way bridge 10 me­tres above the wa­ter. Charles, one of our cap­tains, re­as­sured us: “Trains don’t come on Thurs­days.” We were 20 me­tres onto the bridge and we sud­denly saw a head­light up ahead. The tracks rum­bled as a train bar­relled to­ward us. Oh shit, I thought.

Is this it? Is this how I

die? We froze, ter­ri­fied, then had to de­cide: we could ei­ther back­track 20m or con­tinue 10m forward to an emer­gency safety ledge. The six of us sprinted to­wards the on­com­ing train and crammed our­selves onto the plat­form. Sec­onds later we shiv­ered there be­side each other, 30cm from a train thun­der­ing by. We all stared at Charles in­cred­u­lously. “Trains don’t come on Thurs­days, huh? Right.” – DEREK CALL, VIDEO PRO­DUCER

I was fol­lowed by a very per­sis­tent rac­coon and even­tu­ally used a stick to chase him away. – TREVOR RAAB, GEAR PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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