How I Started My Running Club
I started a running club by accident. During my site visit, when my counterpart asked me to introduce myself to the entire school – ninety one students crammed into a single classroom – I mentioned my early morning running routine. The next morning around 6:30am, half a dozen sleepy but eager kids were waiting at the edge of my host family’s vegetable garden.
The village I live in is home to about 400 people. There are few activities for the students outside school, home, and field work. Everyone, from third to twelfth grade, is allowed to participate in the running club. The younger students usually trail behind, and when they tire, stay back and play tag among the stones and khatchkars (cross-stones) until the group double backs to return to town.
A few weeks ago, my students asked me to take them to “Sarisurp”, the small mountain that overlooks our village. They were tired of running on the road out of town that used to be paved and wanted to do something special for the weekend.
At my site, the sky is clear on most days. A volunteer living in the nearest city said it was because we were too high up for the clouds to find us. “They’re somewhere below us, bothering the rest of the country.”
There were clouds, not so high above us, when we met at the village center Saturday morning. Back in the states I lived in New York, in a small town less than three hundred feet above sea level. We were already higher than Denver when we started climbing.
We hiked from the school, up Sarisurp’s rocky spine, to a steep incline littered with sage brush and thousands of stones the size of my fist that looked as if they were grown there.
When it started raining I kept my head down and looked back to the slower half of the group. There were more students than usual, and stragglers joining up every ten minutes or so. I positioned myself in the middle of the pack as to keep an eye on everyone. I was terrified of someone falling. The long grass was slick and stuck to the earth, covering stones and holes. There were a few wipe-outs, but nothing more severe than cuts and bruises.
As we approached the peak, I realized what I had felt was not rain. We had climbed into a layer of cloud cover. The town had disappeared behind a layer of shifting grey mist and there were darker clouds above us, rolling over the peak and off the steep eastern slopes in waves. The students in the faster group, one after another, ran into the clouds and away from me. I followed when the rest of the students reached the top. We found the fast group waiting by a small shack. I had hiked to the top of the mountain twice before, but never saw the building, its pink slate roof, or the ornate metal cross on the door. The chapel was made out of uncut stone and sloppy concrete. This was why my students wanted to hike up the mountain. The door was latched shut. They waited for me to pull the bolt and open the door, as if it was something they weren’t allowed to do.
I stayed outside as they rushed pass me. A massive black khachkar stood in the middle of the room. A cross was carved on its face. There was very little space on either side of the stone and the top was inches away from the roof, as if the chapel has been built to house it. I felt I was intruding on a holy place, and by opening the door I had done something sacrilegious.
When I told them it was time to go and they ran past me, Vahe, one of my 5th grade students, stayed kneeling at the base of the khachkar. He was holding a few matches in one hand and two thin orange candles in the other. He looked up at me and smiled, as he does whenever I catch him dancing in his seat during lessons, or fighting with his neighbors. I took his hand in mine, struck the match against the stone, and lit the candles. He handed one to me, kissed the cross, and waited for me to do the same.
As my students skipped, laughed, and chased each other down the slope and out of the cloud, ignoring my calls to slow down, grey smoke started to rise from homes around the village. I tried to keep up with the younger kids as they jumped nimbly between stones and boulders. Much faster than we had climbed, we were down the mountain and in the village, beneath the swirling clouds of smoke that stood in the damp air, like marble columns between the earth and sky.