From the June 2012 issue of Runner’s World
One runner reflects on an avian encounter
By Bob Cooper
I flung open my back door one morning to go for a run and startled a little brown bird. It was perched on a running shoe on my shoe rack. Just before it flew away, I noticed twigs clutched in its beak. It was September, prime nest-building time, and on an earlier trail run my shoes had acquired a layer of mud and twigs as thick as the soles it was caked on. The little twig thief was surely headed to one of the backyard oaks to build its nest.
Turns out I had it backward. I left town for a week, and when I returned, my friend was atop the rack again, roosting on a spare pair of running shoes. It flew off to reveal one shoe stuffed with twigs, neatly matted and compacted all the way down to my orthotics. So it wasn’t sneaking from my runners but to them. I now had a featherlight Nike Nest.
Without thinking, I picked up the shoe and scooped out its content. As the nest hit the ground, it struck me that I should have left it alone. I didn’t need the shoes. And when would I ever get the chance to see chicks pecking their way into the world from the cradle of my size 11s?
On my run that day, my admiration for the bird and the guilt over what I’d done both grew. It must have spent a week flying back and forth from the neighbours’ bushes, only to see its efforts unravelled and its home wrecked in an instant. I took some comfort in knowing it would start over again, probably that very day. And as I ran, it dawned on me that the bird shared two essential traits with runners: adaptability and persistence. It adapted by building a nest in a shoe, and it would adapt again by finding some place new to weave its twigs – just as runners adapt by, among other things, adjusting our goals as we get older. Yet adaptability is nothing without persistence. Just as the bird spent a week building its odd little nest, we spend all year building fitness for racing success and all the other perks that come with being a runner. When that hard-earned fitness crumbles because of injury, illness, job or family commitments, we shrug it off and resume the Sisyphean task of building strength and speed one kilometre – one twig – at a time.
In her book about the writing process, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recalls how her older brother once postponed a school report on avian life for months until one day remained. He was close to tears when their father sat down beside him and comforted him with the advice: Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird. Which is how you run 42.2 kilometres, an outlandish distance on the face of it, or any distance, really. Kilometre by kilometre. Just take it kilometre by kilometre.
I was saddened but not surprised that my back-door shoe rack hosted no more visitors that spring. But I can’t blame the bird. It probably just found a new place to call home, out of the reach of meddling humans who prefer using shoes to take flight over the ground rather than to incubate creatures that will truly fly.
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