Oberlin Blogs

Marathons and Metis

April 6, 2024

Naci Konar-Steenberg '26

In high school, I ran on the cross country team. Fall afternoons for me meant long runs across the rolling banks of the Mississippi, or short, sweet sprints across the mud-drenched grassy field by the track. I associate cloudy Thursdays with leaving school early, riding in the team bus to a meet somewhere in the metro area, trying to get myself warmed up while mellowing the excitement that comes with preparing oneself to run five kilometers as fast as possible. I had pre-race rituals. I knew exactly how many minutes I needed to get my spikes on, do a couple of anticipatory stretches, then head to the starting line, shivering in the cold, yet warm with nervous, excited energy.

I also ran marathons. I ran the Twin Cities Marathon twice. It happens in October every year — memories of early fall mornings replete with thousands of runners wearing thin jackets or long sleeve shirts, cloistering themselves from the sharply frigid Minnesota fall. The first time I ran the marathon, I was in tenth grade. My dad had run the marathon a few years earlier, so I wasn’t completely clueless. I ran with him and finished in about five hours. In my senior year, I decided to do the marathon again. I found it more difficult to balance the demands of long distance training with the training for my cross country team. I injured my knee in the last mile of a sixteen-mile run. I considered skipping the race, but the doctor advised me that I could still run the marathon without further injury: it would just hurt. So I ran anyway, and walked every so often. I finished in about four hours.

Neurologists like to say that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ In my mind, running and bucolic visions of cloudy fall days are inextricably linked. When I came to Oberlin, I felt a cold-water shock: autumnal mornings came and went without early morning runs. Recently, I realized that I miss that feeling. So I decided to run another marathon.

There are many great places to run in Oberlin: there are plenty of streets with names like ‘Butternut Ridge Road,’ and there’s a bike trail running through the town, which stretches all the way northeast and southwest to the next towns over. I love to run east of the campus, through Tappan Square and the center of the town, then by the wide yards lining College Street to the bike trail, which I’ll follow northeast out of town, into a tree-tunneled world of long grass and tar-lined cement. Sometimes I’ll run the other direction, past serene houses to the road that lines the western edge of the town of Oberlin. There’s a small reservoir a quarter mile from the road which you can get to on a nature trail. That reservoir is one of the most special spots in Oberlin to me. It’s secluded, scenic in its own kind of way — and it’s almost exactly a half mile in circumference, making it good for running around.

In the wintertime, the reservoir freezes over. But because it’s so big and so physically exposed to the elements, the wind likes to try to batter through the ice. And after a few days of temperatures in the mid-30s, sometimes part of the ice melts into slush. The resulting waves break open the icy surface of the other side of the reservoir. When the temperature drops back down below freezing, the result is that the reservoir becomes covered with thin, fragile layers of ice. You can hear them rubbing together when a gust of wind upsets the surrounding calm. More than once, I’ve stopped in the middle of a run, just to listen.

When I started to train for the marathon, I found myself picking up, almost as a form of intuition, where one running route or another was going to take me, and what each route was going to be like. I know that the distance from North Quad to the reservoir mentioned above is almost exactly 1.8 miles. I know what streets and avenues the bike trail intersects between Professor Street (which it intersects south of campus) and College Street (east of campus). I know exactly which side of Prospect Street has sidewalks where — and I know to run in the grass when it’s cold outside and I’m running in the morning, because the sidewalks on the east side of the road will still be covered with a pernicious coating of ice.

The Ancient Greeks had a word, metis, for practical wisdom: the kind of narrow, intuitive knowledge useful in the specific circumstances of, for instance, your own life. There is a metis to running in Oberlin, and I think that being a pupil of this kind of particular wisdom has helped me in ways that are difficult to explain. Recently there was a comic in the Oberlin Review joking about people taking every shortcut imaginable to get across campus as fast as humanly possible. I’m definitely guilty of doing this. There’s a part of my brain that runs in the background, relentlessly optimizing how I’m going about my day. Sometimes, just sometimes, it gets too much of a workout. But when I’m out running, I can sate that feeling of exhaustion. My brain tells me I should take a right at Vine Street, so that I can get to the grocery store and buy some energy bars while I’m out running, and because adding that distance will mean that one more loop of the back fields will get me to exactly 9 miles…

But usually when I’m out running, things aren’t that complicated. I immerse myself in the things around me. The maze of streets west of campus, the old depot down by the bike trail, the enigmatic woodlands in the southeast corner of town by the highway, all these things catch and hold my attention. Sometimes I’m drawn into how I’m feeling in the moment. My feelings — exhaustion, focus, hunger or thirst, feelings of ‘flow,’ sights and sounds and thoughts and emotions — act weird during my runs. Sometimes eight miles can go by without incident. Then I might stop to tie a wayward shoelace, start running again, and feel like my legs were made of unusually stringy, dry chicken. But then fifty yards and a new street later, the feeling will go away.

Recently, I decided to try to run thirteen miles for a training run. My plan was simple: two laps of a loop that I knew was five and a quarter miles, then an out-and-back addendum down Main Street to the southern end of town. I was feeling great until the halfway point of the run. At seven miles, for some reason, I felt like I desperately needed to change where I was planning to run. Who knows why, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of running on the bike trail again. I haphazardly ran around the southwest corner of the town of Oberlin until my phone read eleven miles. Suddenly I suspected I knew why I wasn’t feeling well: I had neglected to eat lunch that day! Shaken but still determined, I did a dogged two miles along the path of my intended out-and-back, then ran several desperate laps around Wilder Bowl to get to 13.1 miles, the length of a half marathon. Immediately I stopped by the Rathskeller dining hall and ate a champion’s dinner. (It was thirty-one degrees that day. I ran with gloves, but at the end of it all I could barely hold my chicken sandwich.)

Sometimes, that part of my brain that sits in the back of my head, relentlessly planning everything, makes mistakes. Sometimes I need to give it a break. But this morning, I woke up and ran fifteen miles. It was wonderful — a sunny day, forty-five degrees — and I felt amazing. However the marathon goes, I think that that experience matters too. I’m grateful for finally having been able to experience what it’s like to go on a great early morning run here.

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