The White Dragon

Early one morning, I was waiting at a gate in Denver International Airport for a flight to San Francisco that had been delayed because of snow. To pass the time, I was on my computer looking at running and exercise blogs. A man, whose hair was tied back in a long, dark braid, sat down beside me. He was wearing a black North Face jacket over some kind traditional garb tied by a colorful sash at his waist. He had knee high boots that appeared to be made of wool.

I noticed he had a pair of brand new trail shoes tied to the handle of a brown canvas carry on bag. "You a runner?" I asked. His age was hard to guess. His Asian face was ruddy, lustrous, and weathered, with eyes, surrounded by vague crowsfeet, sparkled like black diamonds. He nodded with a warm smile.

I asked him where he was going. "Home. Tibet," he said.

"Wow, I bet that's a tough place to run. The altitude," I said.

He shrugged. "High not so bad. White Dragon. Yes"

I thought about what he said. "White Dragon?" I asked, not understanding. He grinned and pointed to the snow swirling around the airplane outside beyond the window. "Ah, yes, now I understand. Yeah, snow can be tough."

"White Dragon tough," he offered. I asked him what he meant. In his broken English he explained that his ancestors taught him that there is a White Dragon that abides part of the year in a cave on a mountain near Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Sometimes the White Dragon lives in the sky, but when it is in its cave, there is snow, which is like its skin. I asked him to tell me more and he gave me these laws of the White Snow Dragon. He said if you heed them and say a quick prayer to the White Dragon before each outing, you can run safely all winter long.

First Law: White Snow Dragon Hides
There's always some mystery when you run on snow because you don't always know what is really under your feet. The snow may be thin, but hiding a layer of ice. Deep snow can conceal rocks, roots and curbs. Start slowly to get the feel of the snow and surface underneath, watch for lumps and dimples where you are about to step. Run more upright with short strides and come down more flat-footed that you do in dry conditions.

Second Law: Stay Quiet So White Snow Dragon Sleeps
Be light on your feet. Float like you are on thin ice. You will not slip as much, or break through hard crust. If the snow is more than a couple inches deep, you take one successful stride at a time, not reach too far or gain the high forward momentum you attain in summer. If you slip, forward momentum will turn you into a comic figure.

Third Law: Fight White Dragon, White Snow Dragon Wins
You cannot overpower snow. If you push too hard with your foot, you will not turn the force of your muscles into kinetic energy, but dissipate it in the snow. That's tiring and why when you run on snow you will never run the same distance as fast as you do when its dry. Plan on a shorter, slower run. If even the most powerful athlete tries to attack a run in deep snow , s/he will collapse with exhaustion within a minutes. Submit and relax.

Fourth Law: White Dragon Centers All Beings
Find your balance by running with a low center of gravity. Balance from your core. If you r on ice or on a steep hill, keep your hands low and slightly away from your sides. The steeper, the lower. Enjoy the burn in your lower legs and ankles as they seek to find balance on an unstable surface.

Fifth Law: If White Dragon Wakes, Kiss the Earth
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will fall. Relax your body as you go down and roll to minimize the shock to any one part. Keep your upper body strong so you can use your slightly bent, outstretched arms to soften the pull of gravity. If you don't hurt too bad, have a good laugh.

I had a hundred questions to ask him about the White Dragon, but they called to start boarding our flight. What about gear? What about different types of snows? Lots of trail runners retreat to gyms for the winter to escape snow and cold and jump on treadmills and other contraptions. But a TOJ on a treadmill is like a prisoner looking through the prison bars at the world going along outside. This TOJ loves snow because the best trails are less crowded, more big mammals are hanging around, and the running is challenging.

His zone was called to board, and I stood up to thank him for his advice and shake his hand. He was short, but sinewy and powerfully built. I glanced down at the trail shoes dangling from his bag. They we heavily lugged and had a high cuff, perfect for the deep snow where he was headed.

I thought about giving him a tip that if was going to run on ice a lot, he might want to get some 3/8 sheet metal screws and insert them around the outer edges of the shoe, maybe set them in a little Shoe Goo. That works as good a studded snow tires. But then I realized he might not have access to a hardware or running store, and just said, "I hope you have many happy miles in those shoes and don't wake the White Dragon."

He smiled. "Oh, no, I sell to a tourist in Kathmandu for fifty bucks. I run these," he said pointing to his wool boots with a Yak hide sole. "They stick like snow leopard."

As he disappeared down the Jetway, I was still smiling.

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