I find myself running with two 10 year olds. Twins. One has laces flopping about, untied, the other has no socks. They don’t like shoes, shirts, hats, jocks, sunnies or sunscreen. Shorts, to be decent, are fair enough. ‘Less moving parts’ is their moto, as if it were written on their favourite, unworn teeshirt (it’s a silent moto, as saying it aloud would mean it’s another moving part, so they just think it). They are my nephews, born to my sister and brother-in-law. Raised much like free range chickens, the key administration of their life is a free swinging door to the outside world.
It’s 30-odd degrees, dusty as hell and late in the day. We set off to run a twisted old wallaby track that’s been recently converted to single-track mountain bike trails. It’s my local patch of State Park, early summer. In selling them the prospect of a run, I’m vaguely truthful about the length and difficulty of this particular loop. I promise them a post-run dip at a legendary patch of river. There’s a rope swing, I tell them, tied to the largest Gumtree in Australia- tied so high in the tree that you can’t see where the rope ends. They know about rope swings, so take a moment to consider the epic arc of the rope and the potentials of such a massive ride. The branch that the rope is tied to was last seen from the ground in 1915, I add, when the tree was a little smaller. Of course, they call me on it. Being free range means they think for themselves, suspecting that someone, surely, has seen the end of the rope. It can’t be that high! Ok, yep, I’m lying. Changing tack, I overdo the truth about the crumby swimming hole, telling them there’s nothing like swinging wildly from a dodgy length of builder’s rope straining from a poorly selected tree, and landing on your head in a few feet of shallow water. And besides, we’ll pop into the general store and get ice-cream, which tastes way better when eaten from the middle of a river.
Each of us are a little creaky right out of the car. Old utes do that. You tend to peel from the seats in the same shape you’d been sitting. Having set off from home barefoot, I’m astounded to see the boys fully shod within seconds of leaving the car. I have no idea where they materialised their runners from, nor how and when they put them on. Watch kids get ready when they really need to (or want to) and you’ve got a front row seat to true efficiency. Meanwhile, I’m still adjusting my hat, tucking in my laces and putting a dob of zinc on my nose. They take up sticks and fight.
Eying each other off with the intensity of two cage fighters, I imagine they’re deciding which rib to break of their mirror-image. Somewhere deep down they weigh up how much their blows will hurt their other self. It’s excellent viewing, making perfect sense why TV nowadays is so sensational (producers have to compete with identical twins stick-fighting).
As with their shoes, and fighting, they take on the newness of a place in a moment, firing off front of mind questions about; an estimate number of bees in a close by flowering tree; why people dump rubbish; and did bushrangers pass through here on horseback, weighted down with guns and gold? Kids are marvellous at that- being present, especially when stories bring their questions to light. I exaggerate with long answers that are fanciful, almost true, suspecting they’re minds would flip back to dreaming of ice-cream and rope swings if I don’t embellish a little, especially when hitting the first switchback, heading up.
Under each mop of shaggy hair is a very different boy, although to many they are two of the same, differentiated only by their t-shirts. When calling into the op-shop the previous day, the lovely lady behind the bowl of lemons asked the bleedingly obvious: “Oh my, are your boys twins?” “No,” I felt like saying, “What you see cost me a hundred thousand dollars in plastic surgery.” But no, we bought a toaster and jam instead.
I could tell the lads apart within the first year of their lives. Watching them play sport early on was to watch how their walk, jog, and run styles diverged over time. Same bones, similar muscles, different methodology. Despite the same DNA they’ve built their own unique bodies through experiencing and feeling the world through a different set of day-to-day. They are different humans now, and I witness these differences as we switch and turn through the scrub. Juiced up on fruit cake and wheels of cheese their wallaby sized frames move through the long grass as non-twins.
Neither of the boys are runners yet. Although, I’m not exactly sure what I mean by ‘runner’. They’re young dudes that burn an immense amount of energy doing everything, which is equally nothing. You might call it white energy, powered by the sun- going all day then fading at dusk. They’re both capable, perhaps talented, but they also might just be young and physical, like any other kid that’s encouraged to puff, run and jump, climb and fall outdoors.
I’m fascinated by the event – running with small people, something I’ve never done before. Envy comes to mind based on how they approached the run in the first place. Their attitude to come along seemed void of rules, at least rules that a long-time runner lives by; where it fits within the running week; how many kilometres should be covered; is the run different to yesterday; is the run fuelled enough, or in the right way, by certain foods. They simply saw this event, perhaps non-event, as something new and fun, in a place teeming with wildlife, and most importantly (as I pitched) preamble to a swim in a waterhole. They live through a lovely, simple philosophy of transactional reality.
On the first hill I said, “Fellas, let’s grind up this one. Real slow. Think about your feet and your breathing and chug away. Don’t worry about the burn in your legs – that’s a good thing!” Then I thought about what I’d said. It occurred to me that I made no sense. As in, I’m not sure ‘rhythm’, at least running rhythm, is something the lads are familiar with. And the burn…really? Should kids be feeling the burn? Do they need that kind of uncomfortable scorch running through their legs? I know they’d run before, but I knew little about what they thought of key (adult) running ingredients: pace, time, stride, pain, thinking through the terrain, thinking in general, breathing? I asked them about it.
“Well,” says the first one, “I like it. I mean, I kinda like breathing [hard] and thinking about things, but I mostly think about what I’m seeing and where I’m going. [puff, puff] Have you done a flip off the rope swing?” His best friend/nemesis matched the response with: “Yeah, I just keep going until I run out of breath, or I get sore.” I take a leak, telling them to go on ahead with some basic instructions on where to go. I watch as they go to see if they look back. They don’t.
I thought about what number two had said. Me too, I thought, I get sore all the time. But, being an adult I’d stopped listening to myself/mybody years ago. Well, yes and no. I know my body as well as I know anything. I know this to be the case- because I don’t know much about my body. I Google symptoms and feelings and body parts all the time for Christ sake. The meaty side of us is a complex mammal, easy to forget, and hard to know beyond skin level. Getting a grip on the cognitive animal that operationalizes all those moving parts makes our bodies seem even more mythical. The lads don’t operate with as much (mis)information. Heck no, not yet. They simply do, or ask someone, or start something else.
For a moment, thinking along these lines, I felt instantly light, as if running was nothing, and not something. Numbers, calories, time of day, UV rating, reward mechanisms, what I must do, tomorrow etc etc, all vanished (I’m listing things now, and didn’t give these factors a moment of through at the time). The banal practicalities of an over-thinking-runners mind was temporarily banished. I trotted, I think, for a few more minutes, before returning to my adult brain. They’d be at the car by now, I thought, in nothing but shorts, breaking each other’s ribs. Ready for departure, they’ll have taken off their shirts, and piled one sock and three shoes in a neat pile next to someone else’s car.
Tip: Go for a run with young people. It’s bloody good fun and a great kind of running.
A version of this article featured as ‘Two for the trail’ in Trail Runner Magazine (Aus/NZ).