The 138-Mile Classroom

by Kelsey Francis | June 2021

photograph courtesy of the author

A mother and son find their stride

have very little
in common with a 13-year-old boy. Especially the 13-year-old boy who is my son. He likes to talk about video games and mountain bikes and The Mandalorian. I know nothing about all three. The first time he asked if I like The Mandalorian, I thought he was asking me if I like mandolins: “They sound pretty, I guess. But I don’t know much about guitars.”

What my son, Colin, and I do have in common is running. When he was a baby, I began pushing him in a jogging stroller around Mirror Lake. The 2.7-mile loop is a popular walking route for Lake Placid locals and tourists alike. Colin was a miserable, nap-resistant baby who would wake up and scream for the full 2.7 miles if I didn’t move fast enough, so walking was out of the question. I ran a sort of panicked pace that lacked all grace and athleticism. The brick-lined path around the lake provided the perfect, just-slightly-bumpy-enough surface that a six-month-old needs in order to be lulled asleep.   

I’ve logged more miles around Mirror Lake than any other route in Lake Placid. Its turns, sidewalk dips, and architectural landmarks are so imprinted in my brain, I can simply run and not think about running. While I am not a natural-born runner—I was bullied into it by my college roommate—my son was most certainly born to run. Although we weren’t sure he’d ever learn to walk. 

Colin was born with a neural tube defect that, until corrected with major spinal surgery at 18 months of age, made learning to walk difficult. After he healed from surgery, he began running on the same day he began walking.

Over the years, the sidewalk around Mirror Lake has become a kind of sanctuary. I’ve walked it with friends through all sorts of Adirondack weather. I’ve run it during 5K races and half marathons. I’ve waddled its circumference during pregnancies. And sometimes, late at night, I’ve followed its path when worry has kept me from sleeping. I know many others feel a similar communion with the loop around Mirror Lake. Every personal heartbreak, joy, milestone or dilemma of my life over the past 20 years has, in some way, been processed on Mirror Lake’s bumpy red bricks. So, in March 2020, when a pandemic brought the whole world to a standstill, it only made sense to start running around the lake.

Colin had planned to run track in the spring, so he asked if I could help coach him while school was closed. My job as a high-school English teacher had moved entirely online, so running became a healthy activity to break us both away from our screens. Given our limited shared interests, it warmed my heart to think that maybe we could turn running in a pandemic into a bonding experience.

Three or four days a week, we ran three miles. I let Colin choose the route. In early April, Lake Placid was quiet and we had the sidewalks and streets mostly to ourselves on our early morning or late afternoon runs.    

We logged many miles around Mirror Lake. From our house in town, it’s exactly three miles round-trip. On these runs, we watched giant piles of dirty plowed snow shrink each week and mountaintops, blanketed in white, melt from the bottom up. Spring was reluctantly making its return.

Embedded in the red bricks around the lake are granite blocks engraved with the names and heights of each of the 46 High Peaks. On those first few runs in early April, we made a point of counting and saying aloud the names of the peaks as we passed each granite marker.

Me: “Colden, 4,714.

Him: “Gothics, 4,736.”

I am not a 46er. But during those runs around the lake, Colin and I talked about hiking all 46 High Peaks together some day. He asked lots of questions about how many miles I have run in my life (thousands), why I moved from Maryland to the Adirondacks (for a teaching job), and whether or not he is my favorite child (you are my only son and, therefore, my favorite son). 

By mid-April, we learned school buildings would be closed for the rest of the year. There would be no track season for Colin and no in-person teaching for me. Nationally and globally, we were entering a period of questioning what was happening and grieving what was no longer happening. In our little world inside the Adirondack Park, Colin and I kept running as a way to cope with the changes, big and small, in our lives. I suggested that to stay motivated—since there would be no races to train for—we should turn our three-mile runs into a challenge inspired by the 46 High Peaks. He was on board. The plan: complete 46 runs of three miles each, for a total of 138 miles. We dubbed it our 46er Running Challenge. 

Running was the perfect distraction as our circle of activities and circle of human contact got smaller and smaller. Colin turned 13 in April, and in many ways, I felt like my newly minted teenager and I were meeting each other for the first time on those runs. Despite the lack of things to do in a pandemic, there was always something new to talk about while running. We were getting to know each other in a way that simply sharing DNA and living under the same roof doesn’t afford. Colin especially loved hearing stories of his jogging stroller screaming days and about my days of teaching his dad, a man who would eventually complete an Ironman, how to run.

In time, we found other three-mile routes outside of Mirror Lake, and turned the whole village of Lake Placid into our 138-mile classroom. We talked about run pacing and timing. We talked architecture as we ran past new homes whose construction had come to a pandemic halt. We talked weather patterns. We talked about US history and current events. I told him painful truths about the injustices that existed in our country’s past, and continue to exist in our country’s present. There was learning to do on both our parts. We shared stories. Teaching and parenting in a pandemic were testing me in new ways—many of which left me feeling exhausted and helpless. But when Colin and I were running and talking, our footfalls in sync, I felt hopeful.    

We ran on roads and on trails. We had close-encounters with dozens of chipmunks, a handful of groundhogs, and once, a fox. We regularly saw hawks, wild turkeys and deer. There was a fairytale quality to the wildlife; somehow, these creatures were flourishing in the midst of a pandemic. How was this possible? Fewer people around? Less road noise? Or maybe it was the quieting of our own lives that had finally allowed us to take notice.

Once we hit 50 miles in our 138-mile goal, we decided our running could do more than just motivate us. We could help our community. There was more to be taught and more to learn through our miles. I contacted The Bookstore Plus, in Lake Placid, and the school district. Was it possible we could raise money to buy books for local kids who were now at home without access to school and public libraries? Yes. Our 138-mile classroom was now a fundraiser—supporting a family-owned business and supporting literacy for local schoolchildren. 

Together, we designed “46er Running Challenge” T-shirts to wear on our runs. Dark blue, with mountains silhouetted in white on the front. Through all of May, we steadily logged our miles, three at time, and my Mother’s Day gift was an early morning run on freshly fallen snow. The phone was ringing off the hook at the bookstore. In the midst of so much loss, people near and far were supporting our cause. I was proud to be part of this community. I was proud of Colin. I was proud of us.

Despite my years of experience working with teenagers as a high-school teacher, I felt ill-equipped at connecting with my own teenager. The good news was eye contact isn’t necessary for conversation when you’re running. Asking and answering questions became easier. There were no awkward pauses. Just long pauses when we conquered a steep hill and the focus shifted to our breathing. The last time we were this close, he was the miserable baby and I was a new mother pushing him ungracefully in a jogging stroller.   

By early June, through the great generosity of many, we had raised over $3,500 to buy new books for 200 kids in Lake Placid. It was time to run our final three miles and, when I asked Colin where we should finish, he didn’t hesitate: “We have to finish around Mirror Lake.”

With a small cheering section— masked and socially distanced—Colin and I ran our last three miles where we had started running together 13 years earlier. There was no stroller or screaming. We were chatting, planning the giant burgers we were going to eat afterwards, and admiring the freshly poured portions of smooth concrete replacing the bumpy red-brick sidewalk.

“I’m kind of going to miss those red bricks,” I said.

“I’m not. They were old and bumpy. You should stop missing things so much,” he instructed.

We crossed an imaginary finish line on the shore of Mirror Lake and our 138 46er pandemic miles were complete.

The learning, however, continues.    

Kelsey Franciss essays have been published  in The Washington Post, The New York Times and on Her essay “The Property” appeared in the June 2020 issue of Adirondack Life.

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