More than anything else (with the possible exception of photographs), smells trigger memories for me. The smell of an old musty garage reminds me of my papa, who spent his days rebuilding World War II jeeps and whose hands were perpetually stained with motor oil and gasoline. The earthy smell of a stable brings me back to the days when I dreamed of being a jockey and prayed that I would never grow past my 12-year-old height of 4’11”. (Alas, I hit a growth spurt. I am now an Amazonian 5’5”.) And the smell of warm cinnamon carries me back to cold, winter mornings homeschooling, when my siblings and I would sit by the fire and work on math problems and spelling lists while our mom baked cinnamon rolls (with icing). I still can’t pass a Cinnabon without breaking into the “Preposition Song.” (About, above, across! After, against, along, amid, among…!)
I’m not sure why, but fall is especially conducive to aromatic recall. Come the first cool autumn breeze with its fragrant scent of dry leaves and earth, and my sensory receptors automatically reset to “Nostalgic.” For me, autumn is one giant This Is Your Life moment.
This past weekend, I went for a short run. The skies were overcast, and the temperature hovered in the oh-so temperate sixties. The dense humidity of late summer was replaced by cooler, crisper air, and each breeze was accompanied by the distinctive rustle of dry leaves. Suddenly, the wind picked up, and a gentle gust billowed across the landscape. The wind was spiced with the scent of bonfires and apple cider and cornhusks and football. (Okay, so maybe I couldn’t actually smell football.) At any rate, in that moment, I was transported back in time. No, not to my childhood. Not to high school. Not even to five years ago.
But to last fall.
My running buddy Seth and I were marathon training. Every weekend, we’d meet up before dawn and lug ourselves 18, 20, or 22 miles across the city of St. Louis. Forest Park. Clayton. Soulard. Tower Grove. Downtown. Dogtown. Maplewood. Carondolet. We’d push each other through the miles and then celebrate with dry clothes, hot coffee, good music, and football (lots of football) on TV.
Seth and I had just hammered the fastest twenty miles we had ever run. I was sitting on the floor in front of his computer, hot coffee in hand, as he conducted our traditional review of mile splits, which usually involved no small amount of self-congratulation. Mile by mile he relayed the splits.
“What?” I exclaimed halfway through report.
“Yep.” He kept reading.
“Dude! That’s really fast! We were rollin’!”
I was inordinately impressed with myself, and I’m pretty sure I rode the “hammered long run” high for several weeks. The mile split reviews were always a highlight, cementing the accomplishment of a long run. (We were also on a Cold War Kids kick at the time, and the band graciously provided the soundtrack to our weekly analyses.)
We established other traditions as well, both calculated and unintentional. The latter came in the form of many emergency bathroom breaks (all of which can be pinned on yours truly). We stopped at White Castle, where a kind worker gave us enough ice water to keep the entire state of Missouri properly hydrated. We hopped into the Hi-Pointe Theater, where I had to march up a flight of carpeted stairs to the ladies’ room, which for reasons unknown was kept at a balmy ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit. And of course we took full advantage of the Visitor’s Center in Forest Park, which had one toilet in particular with an overactive auto-flush.
Then there was the time Seth’s Achilles (or quad or entire body… we’re not really sure) cramped while we were running along Kingshighway. We were just about to cross over highway 40 when he stopped mid-stride and bent in half as though he had been shot.
“What’s the matter?” I asked as he mumbled and yelled in pain.
He remained bent over, unable to move—and equally as unable to pinpoint what it was, exactly, that hurt so badly. For some reason this struck me as hilarious (perhaps it had to do with the vagueness of his affliction combined with what he was mumbling), and I started laughing so hard I snorted. Seth started laughing between groans, and I laughed even harder. To this day, neither of us knows what we found so funny; thus, the incident is simply referred to as “Seth’s hilarious injury.” (Seth’s hilarious injury also resulted in a five-mile walk back to his house and an impromptu, two-mile-an-hour tour of The Hill.)
Karma soon issued retribution for my inconsideration of Seth’s hilarious injury. The following weekend—during a pace run, no less—several packets of Jet Blackberry GU discovered a hole in the pocket of my shorts, through which they adroitly maneuvered themselves as I ran. We hit McCausland just as the GU trapped itself in the built-in underwear, an extremely uncomfortable situation for all parties involved. I tried to shake the GU out of my underwear, but because of the security of the elastic bands (darn you, Nike, with your “stay put” lining!), all shaking and wiggling was futile. With no discreet place to remedy the situation, I ordered Seth to turn around while I retrieved the GU from my shorts under the watchful eyes of several dozen commuters driving down McCausland.
Now, one year removed from the “McCausland Incident,” I smiled as I ran. Hammered long runs. Bathroom breaks and hilarious injuries. Mile splits and Cold War Kids. Hot coffee. Jeans. Sweatshirts. Grilled cheese sandwiches from the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. ESPN College Game Day on TV. Yes, last fall was something special.
It’s funny how the things we often take for granted or dismiss as routine become the very things we cherish. Circumstances that are inconvenient or seem mildly disastrous at the time become the stories we tell over and over, each time with more laughter (and detail) than the last. And the very moments that seem forgettable turn into what you remember most.
Four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington has a favorite saying, and it is quickly becoming one of mine: “Be happy for this moment, for this moment is your life.”
That’s the thing. Life is moments. Far from being one grand event, life is in the plural. Just as each long run is made up of a collection of mile splits worthy of review, so life is an assortment of anecdotes and stories and mishaps that are best enjoyed when celebrated. Because these moments are what make life fun. Because these moments are what make life memorable. Because these moments are what make life, life.
The Cold War Kids soundtrack is optional.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.