Flirting with Running

Whiteman Moccasin by Moriah Halwood of Dine' College

Whiteman Moccasin by Moriah Halwood of Dine’ College

In discounted sneakers, Fred Meyer yoga pants, a tank top from a second-hand store, and an extra-supportive sports bra inherited from a fellow MFA student whose husband works for Patagonia, I am relieving residency tensions by flirting with morning running. Flirting, because a flirtation has benefits that a commitment negates—i.e., I don’t feel compelled to invest in pretty gear; whenever my creaky knees urge me to, I can cheat on running with walking; when I see a rabbit, I can stop and take a picture with the cell phone in my pocket; and I can always, always, be back before breakfast.

These are expected benefits. There have been unexpected benefits too, such as getting to know neighbors. Including wild ones. One wild walker I came across tossed her keys into a bush and then didn’t know how to find them. Another, with a cane, warned me of rattlesnakes by forcefully waving it, while saying, in strong tones, “You know, dear, there are venomous slithering things out there.” An agitated young man, with a red shirt on his head, danced in place, insisting that he was being stung by invisible insects. A pedal-pumping biker in full gear pointed at soaring ravens as he zipped past. A calm collector of grasses and herbs gestured with her free arm at the endless rabbit-warren entrances that line the trail.

On my flirty runs, I learned to distinguish between jackrabbits and cottontails. It took slowing down and focusing to accomplish discernment such as this. Jackrabbits are bigger, but there are always a lot of similarly sized babies to confuse the eye. A lot-lot-lot of babies. Because rattlesnakes slip in and out of the rabbit warrens, the rabbits make enough babies to be able to spare one or two, or a few, to one or more of New Mexico’s seven rattlesnake species. Jackrabbits have a bit of black on the tips of their ears, and flatter, longer tails, but these features can be hard to distinguish on the still-developing babies. But their eyes! Jackrabbit eyes pop right out of their heads like bolts from nuts. Even on the babies. And jackrabbits have a hoppier gait, too, due to their longer back legs. It takes stopping a while to observe these identifiers. And, being as I am only flirting with running, I take multiple opportunities to catch my breath, hands on knees, eyes on rabbits.

I haven’t seen a rattler slither into a warren or across the trail. I could have missed a dusty-brown coiled presence in the shadows. I’ve been told I could come across a western prairie rattlesnake, or a western diamondback. That care must be taken while running, with full engagement of peripheral vision, as the rattlesnake strikes from a coiled position with a reach of up to half its length—as much as five feet. These rattlers swallow rabbit-babies whole. If you can imagine. Now I’m imagining one swallowing my foot after downing me with venom. Shake that vision.

On my flirty runs, I’ve gotten to know, through repeated encounters, the New Mexico whiptail, a three-inch brown-black lizard with yellow stripes. The guidebook that I slip into the campus library to quick-consult after my runs tells me that this female-only species produces eggs through parthenogenesis, making the hatchlings clones of their mothers. The whiptail females stimulate ovulation by engaging in mating behaviors with each other and thus have been dubbed “lesbian lizards.” How cool is it that the female-only whiptail is the New Mexico state reptile? The whippy tail of its name is a mesmerizing blue-green. If the beautiful thing wasn’t always being whipped away in the lizard’s darting, it would definitely hypnotize me.

On my flirty runs, the mountain bluebirds swoop around me as though looking to lift an invisible Cinderella dress, making me feel somehow prettier in my heavy sweating, though I strongly suspect they are just looking for insects. Ants pour like particulated smoke back into the spouts of their magic-lamp anthills, inviting speculation about three wishes. The sky offers ever-magnificent light shows and cloud entertainments, regularly distracting me from everything else. And before I know it, I’m running more, and farther. And feeling good.

And here we come to the thing about flirting—it can lead to falling in love. Yesterday, I ran-walked so far that I missed breakfast. Tomorrow, I plan to order real running shoes. Is that writing I see hanging in the air of this wall-less trail?

Mary Kancewick is an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts who focuses on creative nonfiction.

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