There is something about distance running that transforms otherwise sensible people into irrational recreational enthusiasts. A gentler person might be inclined to say carefree or cavalier, but deep down, we all know that reckless and obsessive are more fitting. Individuals who are responsible in other areas of their lives suddenly feel at liberty to abandon sound judgment the moment their Garmins catch a satellite signal. We become, if you will, excessively committed.
One August, years ago, I took my brother, Joe, and his best friend Drew to play tennis. Drew, who is like a member of our family—two members, really, if the qualification is based on the amount of food he takes from our pantry—had been working all summer at a hockey camp, and our tennis matches had suffered for it. So we were excited about an afternoon on the courts—me, Joe, Drew, and two cans of Wilson tennis balls, which would inevitably wind up in the cattails surrounding the courts. The tennis balls determined the length of our matches—like lives in a video game. The match was over the minute the last Wilson 1 met eternity in a tuft of Amazonian weeds.
But it was late summer in St. Louis, and the humidity that had peaceably assembled in the morning had turned into a frenzied mob by 3:00 p.m. Dark, charcoal clouds rolled over the hills, across the sun, across the cattails, and then across the tennis courts.
I imagine people use the verb “roll” when describing the appearance and subsequent approach of clouds because of the corresponding thunder, which sounds not unlike a bowling ball rolling toward a triangle of pins on the other end of the lane. And not a bowling ball thrown by a professional, with customized shoes and a dramatic, sweeping-leg finish, but by someone who uses two hands to hurl the ball between his legs and then has time to order a pizza before the ball reaches the first pin.
Thrrump. Thrrump. Thrrump. Thrr-ump. Th-rru-mp. Crash!
“Yikes. That storm looks pretty intense,” I ventured.
“Thunderstorms usually do, Amers,” Drew said before announcing, “Fifteen-love!” and serving the ball to my side of the court.
A few points later, the sky was black.
Thrrump. Thrrump. Thrrump. Thrr-ump. Th-rru-mp. Crash!
That time the thunder was louder and sharper. The bowler is improving, I thought. Or he had switched to a lane closer to where we were playing tennis.
Being ten years older than my brother Joe and twelve years older than Drew, I felt a sense of responsibility for the boys’ wellbeing. Specifically, I didn’t want to be blamed were something to happen to their wellbeing. And that lightning did look awfully close. And we were standing in the middle of a large, exposed space. And all three of us were holding aluminum lightning rods.
“Hey,” I yelled across the court after a particularly aggressive streak of lightning sliced the sky, “how close does lightning have to be for it to be dangerous?”
“There’s no reason to leave until someone gets struck,” Drew said calmly as he reached into his pocket for a tennis ball and readied for another serve.
I considered his argument for several minutes. I tried to remember the stories—both good and bad—I’d heard about people being struck by lightning, most of them undoubtedly sourced from Ripley’s Believe It or Not. You had the usual disfigurements and maladies: the guy who lost his ear and a couple of fingers or the lady who spontaneously aged forty-five years. And then you had the wonders, such as the guy who saw an abundance of green dots for several months but also discovered he’d suddenly become multilingual, which to me seemed to be a pretty fair tradeoff. And, of course, there were multiple deaths, but I couldn’t remember if those were the result of direct hits or simply being in the vicinity.
I figured that while Drew’s mom would have been upset by the initial report that her son had been struck by lightning while under my supervision, and perhaps distressed that he now lived in a polka-dotted universe, she would have been overcome with joy—to the point of tears, even—the moment he translated Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera in five acts.
Still, there was the whole death thing, and I figured I probably shouldn’t take my chances. Despite the remaining three tennis balls, I finally convinced Joe and Drew to call it a match, but only after they made me promise to take them to Steak ‘n’ Shake.
As much as I heckled Joe and Drew about their kamikaze lack of concern regarding thunderstorms, I wasn’t completely oblivious to my own indiscriminate running habits. Hail? Freezing rain? Tornado warnings? Lightning storms? Lethal wind chills?
Hey, there’s no need to leave until someone gets struck.
I have had a friend who once tried to convince me that distance running kills brain cells. He was a professor of molecular physics or something like that, and he was convinced that I was literally running myself into stupidity. So I said he had chicken legs.
We are no longer friends.
At any rate, perhaps on occasion distance runners make decisions that seem questionable on the surface, but it’s all a matter of semantics, really. One man’s unadvisable is another man’s dedicated.
Then again—and this is yet another lesson I learned from Joe and Drew—running in a lightning storm is a lot like eating an entire box of Oreos in under six minutes.
Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
[Editor's Note: Fleet Feet Sports recommends that all runners download the free WeatherBug app to their phone and use its terrific Spark Lightning feature to track nearby lightning strikes. If lightning is striking more than 10 miles from your position, consider yourself safe. It's unadvisable to run whenever lightning strikes have been reported less than 5 miles away. Additional considerations regarding the storm direction and your location will determine whether running with lightning 5-10 miles away is an indication of your determination or your recklessness.]
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.