Twenty with the Train

Today I headed out to the bike path for the long walk. The schedule says “20 miles.” Since I’ve missed training this week, because I’ve been sick, I don’t know how it will go, but I prepare for the 20 just in case. The voice of a friend is in my head “Let me get this straight: you’ve been sick all week and you’re going to do 20 miles???” I know I may have to stop early, training is not the time for heroics, but even she concedes “well, I suppose we could say you’ve tapered.” [Tapering is the shorter workouts you do to rest before a big race.] Its pretty warm — about 45 degrees outside my kitchen window — so I wear shorts and two shirts. The forecast tells me to prepare for rain, but nothing beyond our usual Portland weather — some rain, and probably some breaks.

Starting out on the bike path, I can’t help but notice the train. They’re running a vintage steam locomotive, pulling some passenger cars, on the tracks alongside the bike path this weekend and next: the Holiday Express. Its big and black and all shined up. Signs along the path warn us of “congestion ahead” — folks boarding the train are standing along the path in clumps. The steam plume from the locomotive is impressive. As I approach, I’m reminded of a scene from a movie, some film version of Anna Karenina I think, definitely Dostoevsky. But seeing the train in the movie is nothing like this. As I pass, I’m temporarily enveloped in the white billowy steam, which has a slight odor, and I am struck by the power of this locomotive. And the specialness. Nothing at all like the regular Amtrak. There’s this feeling, that its The Train, an event, leaving in a while, and people are already gathered. Incredibly romantic.

I continue on past the train stop, to finish my 5 mile loop. Its cloudy, but the rain that came down a bit as I started has stopped, and I’m glad I decided to leave my jacket in the car. My approach is to divide the walk into 5 mile pieces, and only think about the current loop at any given time. So, I feel pretty good as I turn around to come back, knowing I’m halfway done. There’s a wind in my face on the return, but still, its not really cold, so its at worst a slight slow down. I have to make my way carefully through the train crowd, but by the time I’m finishing, the sun is out, and I’m missing my sunglasses, which I’ve left back in the car. The sun is reflecting in the river, with the hills rising from the far bank and some houseboats on my side. The train starts, and runs alongside of me for the short remainder of the path. There are people all along the path, and the adjacent paths and grass, snapping photographs and videos of the train, and I’m afraid quite a few of them include a racewalker with a runny nose. The effect of the train as it runs, steam puffing out in a regular rhythm with the wheels, is just amazing.

At my pitstop at the car, I get my sunglasses, and some sports drink, stretch briefly, and head back out for round two. My thoughts seem to want to combine the loops, to think back to the first or ahead to the third or fourth, but I keep a strict lid on that. Right now I’m doing 5 miles, just starting out, and that’s it. The train is ahead of me, and I wonder if I’ll catch it, but I need to stay slow, this is long walk day, and after a bit I realize its gaining on me. I can’t stay disappointed for long — there’s a huge rainbow stretching up from the Portland hills on the left across the river and above the path, and I gawk at it like a five year old.

I’m on the path for awhile, over four hours, and the train passes a number of times as it makes its short runs up past the end of the bike path and back. Each time I wave, to the engineers and also to the children whose faces I can see pressed up against the window. They wave back, eagerly, very excited to be on the train. Most days, we can hardly run the Amtrak on schedule, but today we have the result of some small army of folks who have readied the tracks, and polished the train, and are standing out all day in santa caps, just to get this vintage train to run, and for the first time this year, I feel the magic of Christmas.

During loop three, it starts to rain, and along the way I encounter a man walking along in a heavy jacket and hat, who says “Nice weather we’re having, huh?” I think for a second, trying to keep to my “no negatives” rule in spite of the wet, and say “well, its not snowing.” This gets him to laugh and agree. By the time I get back to the car, the rain has stopped once again. I feel okay, and I’m smiling, because I think I’m going to do the twenty, and that would be so cool. Time to head out for loop four.

Its starting to get dark, and as I go, I notice the pretty effect of the lights on the hill across the river. As I approach my turnaround, I’m closer to downtown, and all of the lights of Portland are across from me. There are several construction cranes for the waterfront construction, across the river, and they’ve all been decorated in Christmas lights. I turn for the home stretch, and it hits me: I’m going to do it. I just need to keep steady, not speed up, stay in good form, stay tall, pay attention to my feet. Well, not too much attention to my feet, because the right one is hurting a pretty good amount at this point, but enough attention to plant them well and keep good form. There’s a fairly dark portion, of half a mile or so, but then I emerge into a brighter area, with the lights of the hills across on my right, the lights and decorations of the houseboats closer in, and to my left, the large Sellwood Christmas tree shining down onto the nature preserve. Up ahead, there is a clearing in the sky, a stretch of light blue as a break in the gray clouds, and I’m walking towards it. I get one last chance to wave to the train, then hit the marker for the end of my walk: twenty miles!! I stop racewalking, and walk slowly the rest of the way to the car.

I’m always a bit loopy after this many miles. I stop in the grocery store, and as I’m checking out, I pick up the pen and search my receipt for the signature line, but of course there is none, I’m using a debit card, and I can’t help but wonder what the clerk is thinking as she corrects me. Back at home, I gather my bags, and carefully take my key out of my pocket to get ready for the door, but its my car key, and after trying to open the house door with it, it takes me a minute to figure out what’s wrong. Eventually, though, I’m safely in the house, bags of groceries stowed away, in a hot shower.

What a magical day.

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