Thoughts in the haze
By Marlene Farrell
Leavenworth’s air quality rating on the day I am writing this is “moderate!” I pronounce that loudly because normalcy is a bit shocking after our long stint of varying degrees of toxicity. The persistent smoke from nearby wildfires has confronted us when we step outside and has even weaseled its way in through the cracks in our homes. It also has made me reflect on what I have been taking for granted, particularly when it comes to running.
In the midst of this haze, I have been using my headlamp for short runs. Its light makes a weak glow in front of me so that I can distinguish gray road from gray gravel and grass on the side, receding into blackness. I’ve found bursts of light don’t happen now. A blanket of ashy motes floats above the ground, sponging up the light, leaving behind an orange residue.
Once I passed a man, one of the few other runners out, perhaps sharing my sense of grim necessity. But I didn’t see him until I was close enough to touch him. The gloom swallowed his figure and even his footsteps. His disembodied voice called out a greeting. It was like talking to a ghost.
I went on a slightly longer run one unhealthy — bordering on hazardous — morning. In the middle miles my legs were running up a hill that didn’t exist and my throat felt dry. I tried breathing entirely through my nose to let my overactive phlegm collect the dust like so many flies in a web. I was surprised that by the end I felt better. My stride lengthened beyond a trudge, the cadence of my footsteps revved up. I thought, “That wasn’t so bad.”
But later, when my throat still felt like sandpaper and an ache crept over my skull and my breath still reeked of burnt molecules, I knew I was tricking myself. When I have run, it’s been under the cover of darkness or away from populated places. Occasionally, friends question me in the negative, “You aren’t running in this smoke, are you?” “A little,” I might respond, muttering something about conditions being better in the morning, though I’m highly skeptical.
My ignorance is no longer blissful. When I google the “chemical composition of forest fire smoke” I find professional articles with dizzingly long tables of health damaging pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrocarbons, oxygenated organics and particulate matter. The information about exercising in low-quality air tells me that an athlete takes in 10 to 20 times more air as they exert themselves. Those exertions require deeper inhalations, which decrease the effectiveness of the soot being trapped by our nose hairs.
The firefighters get heaping doses of this gaseous cocktail in their long shifts of dangerous work, and even at their base camps while resting. I, on the other hand, leave my sealed air supply for the luxury of exercising in a fog sprinkled with poisons and tars.
What would I do if this were my reality? What if I lived in Ahwaz, Iran, rated the worst polluted city in the world? I am incredibly lucky because I don’t have to wait for a huge overhaul of my country’s dirty fuel reliance. Rather I am waiting for the fires to hit the bare ground and peter out, for the rain to scrub the sky, for the wind to sweep the problem somewhere else. It is a matter of when, not if.
The end may be in sight. This week, our Washington Air Quality Advisory rating dropped into the double digits for the first time in almost two weeks. That means those who have become fixtures at our local gyms can begin to venture out again. And I can do my thing, which is to run, with less likelihood of scorn and self-harm. And a stronger sense of gratitude.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.