My fastest mile in 2006 was on Holly Boulevard in Brandon.
I remember this because I was with friends Kristen Johnston and Christine Ellis, and we were rounding mile 10 of our 20-mile run that morning. We had started long before sunrise, meeting near central Sioux Falls in a parking lot, waiting under the streetlamp for each other.
We set out, headed north from town and turned east on Rice Street. It’s a street that carries a few bad memories for me, including hitting the railroad tracks wrong on my bike once and falling and breaking my elbow, having to ride back to Sioux Falls barely able to grip my handlebars and unable to move my arm.
But this morning, we set out, settled into what our pace would be for an easy 20 miles as we got ready for spring marathons. We chatted the entire way, waiting for the sun to come up. Kristen was getting ready for the Brookings Marathon, where she went on to qualify for Boston. I was getting ready for the Vermont City Marathon, where I went out too fast, blew up and then laid in the grass and cried at the finish.
Somewhere just past where Rice Street turns into Holly Boulevard, I saw a light flash. I didn’t think much of it – it was still dark, still well before sunrise, in my memory. We had been laughing as we ran because a while earlier a bat had flown by Kristen and brushed her with his wings. It elicited the screams and frenzied arm-waving you’d imagine if a bat flew into you.
The lights flashed again.
“Must be streetlights,” I thought, as we headed east.
A while later, the flashing.
Then the realization – we’re still essentially out in the country. There are no streetlights. This flashing wasn’t the hum and buzz of a light flickering off as dawn approached. If it were, I would have noticed the line of lights going off one by one as we made our way toward Brandon.
“Did you guys see that,” I asked them, wondering if I was just tired, if my eyes were playing tricks on me.
They had, and we stopped and turned.
Behind us, a wall of black clouds was beginning to roll, to descend on us, as we stood helpless in its path.
I hate lightning. I’m terrified of it. I have been ever since I was a kid and I had to run home from the neighbors, carrying my case of Barbie clothes with me, when it spilled open on the lawn between our split-level houses and I had to scoop it all up as the sky lit up above me, my friend’s brother trying to help me, having been ordered to help me get home.
Then once Christine and I were on the bike path, and the sky went black, and all the hair on my arms stood up, electric, as the lightning began. We stood under a bridge and called her dad to come pick us up.
This time, there was nowhere to go and no one to call.
Get in the ditch, outrun it, stop and cry, panic.
We began to run again, faster and faster, imagine a train picking up speed, the steady hum, the metal on metal, the whistle blowing. That was us. I confess that after a few minutes, it was every man for himself, and I found something in me that carried me faster than them, dipping into the 6:00s, until I skidded my way into the Casey’s convenience store that marked the halfway point of our run.
Christine and Kristen came in a minute later, and we stood soaking wet in the doorway. People came in to buy their newspapers and donuts. We looked out the window, wondering if it would let up any time soon. I decided not to risk it, called for a ride. They had their own demons to outrun and chose to keep going, through Brandon and up the ridge home.
Lightning is the one kind of weather I won’t run in. I’ve run in heavy rainstorms, 15 miles through Sioux Falls on a freezing and wet weekend morning once, where I came home and was met with a fuzzy bathrobe and urged to get a cup of tea, immediately. A blizzard that obscured my path, snow blowing over my footprints and ice pricking my eyes. A New Year’s Day run with Kristen once, where we were in no way prepared for the cold and the distance, but did it anyway. Or that day in Vermont, when it was much hotter than I realized, and I stopped sweating and had goosebumps and still was devastated I had missed my goal.
In all of those, I mostly knew I would be OK. I can’t handle the unpredictability of lightning, the knowledge that there’s really nothing you can do. I remember two friends telling me about a camping trip to the Boundary Waters, in a tent in the middle of the park – and a lightning storm.
“We just laid there and held each other and thought, well, if this is how we go, this is how we go,” she said.
That’s the thing. It can be how you go.
I’m not ready to go gently into that good light just yet.
I got a ride home from Brandon that day. Kristen and Christine made it over the ridge, the strikes all around them, to finish their training run. Since then, I’ve just been scared. If it looks too grey or too dark or too threatening, I’ve been known to run loop after loop.
This past weekend, as storms went around Sioux Falls and I kept waiting for my window, I paced the house restlessly. I should have gone when I woke up Sunday morning, but I hadn’t, distracted instead, thinking I had all day to do it.
Finally around 5, my friend and I laced up our shoes and decided to go, just go, for as long as we could, even though we heard the thunder in the distance and the red lightning bolt on our phones said to “seek shelter.”
We did, in our own way, and ran a 0.75-mile loop for 3 miles. It was enough to take the edge off, which really is the point of any run, anyway. It’s a sport filled with the anxious, with former addicts, with people who need to get it out, any way they can, whatever it is they need to overcome.
The lightning still scares me. It’s a real fear of a real threat. But just like anything dangerous, sometimes you have to look at what else it does. It lights up the night. Electrifies the air. Shows itself in jagged streaks across the sky. Turns a restless afternoon into a reason to watch a movie, lay on the couch, wait for a break.
To find the half hour and take it. To find the miles and run them.
It takes the day or the night, shows itself, and then shows you, lit up against the shoulder on Rice Street, under a bridge near soccer fields, standing in the kitchen staring over the deck. Or once, standing on the front porch of our rental house in Elyria, Ohio, as my dad and I watched a huge storm roll in across the toll road across the street, across the field beyond it.
Just coming and coming, splitting the day, splitting the night, rumble in the distance.
Seek shelter. Immediately. Whatever that means for you.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.