For the Love of Dog
Below a dirt path three miles from Georgetown where darkness had settled in and the only semblance of civilization was the headlights of commuters on Canal Road racing home to the suburbs, I looked around to see if anyone could hear or see me. From the neck down, I had been submerged in freezing water for about three minutes, unable to climb back onto the ice, through which I had fallen. I could not feel my hands or my forearms.
My dog, Looly, began to pace back and forth on the trail above, going back down but never getting too near the ice. "This is it," I thought, looking up toward her, my heart nearly pushing through my chest.
I had but one other thought at that moment: Who's going to take care of the dog? How's she going to get home?
I wish I could say my feelings then were a last act of love and concern for my pet. But that's not the truth. The truth is, by worrying about Looly at the exact moment of my own crucible, I didn't have to focus on myself. I didn't have to deal with my reality: I was alone. I was scared. And I was going to die that way.
WE HAD SET OUT ON THAT JANUARY EVENING ON OUR USUAL RUN ALONG THE C&O CANAL in Georgetown. I had parked at the end of K Street and had fed the meter enough quarters to give us an hour and a half. An easy six miles -- with a rest and stretch after three miles and all the potty breaks Looly needed -- would put us back at the car, I figured, no later than 6:45 p.m. Washington had had several straight nights in the low 20s, and I noticed a layer of ice on the canal.
Starting at the one-mile marker, with darkness approaching, I knew few other runners would be on the trail, and that was just fine. For a year and a half, the solitary ritual of my dog and me monotonously putting our feet and paws in front of one another -- striding slowly past mallard ducklings in the spring and whitetail deer peering through barren stalks of oak in November -- created the illusion of living in the country. A mile out on that trail, it was impossible to know we had passed a Ralph Lauren store 15 minutes earlier.
Out on the C&O, which spans an incredible 184.5 miles from Washington to Cumberland, Md., a person can process things and let go. Plumb the heart and gut. Use the mind as a distiller. Then rid the body of it all on the way back to the car.
That night, I was thinking about my job; my sister, Valeska, back home in Northern California, worried sick over my pregnant niece; and Michael Wilbon, my friend and colleague, who had suffered a heart attack the night before, at age 49, while sleeping beside his wife, Sheryl. Wilbon, who had encouraged The Post to hire me as a sports columnist, was someone I worried about. Beginning with their crackling partnership in The Post sports department three decades ago, he and Tony Kornheiser had found the Holy Grail of the modern media world -- their personalities had trumped the news. But the tradeoff for money, fame and universal respect was their time and, in Wilbon's case, his health. When Wilbon was on a panel honoring the late Post sportswriter Shirley Povich last year, I remember him responding to a question of how he managed to fit everything in.
"You can sleep when you die," he said.
As I trudged along that night, contemplating Wilbon's brush with death, I was put in touch with my own mortality at age 44. I had promised myself I would slow down after a minor health scare a week before Thanksgiving, but I hadn't.
A slight woman with long, dark hair was running by herself in front of us for almost two miles until she turned off at a bridge just before the four-mile marker on the canal. Looly, whom I had allowed to run unleashed -- legally a no-no in the national park -- tried to catch up with her several times. But the woman seemed uninterested.
I remember thinking, I wonder if she's turning off because it's now dark and she has a 6-foot-4 stranger following her. Lit by the streetlights on Canal Road and rays of moonlight illuminating the 12-foot-wide towpath, visibility on the first two miles is usually good. But as my feet pounded the two-by-fours on the long wooden bridge that ends just before our three-mile turnaround -- maybe 200 yards before Chain Bridge -- it was hard to make out much on the ground.