The prayer of an Alaska runner

Editor's note: The theme of Arlitia Jones' new play, "Come to Me, Leopards," calls to mind a recent essay, "Running," by former Daily News staffer Cinthia Ritchie. The piece was originally published in Sport Literate literary magazine and is included in the "Best American Sports Writing 2013" collection. We asked her to supply readers with an excerpt and some background about it.

I wrote "Running" after a run up toward Wolverine Peak on a muddy spring day when the trees were bare and snow scarred the trail and the air felt damp and obstinate. I felt obstinate too. A few months earlier I had moved back to Anchorage from Seward, where I had lived for two years, and I couldn't adapt to city life, couldn't get used to the traffic or noise or bustle.

So I sat down, still in my dirty running clothes, and began writing. I wrote through the night, getting up only to eat and walk the dog. I wrote the way I felt: fierce and gritty, with the taste of mud between my teeth.

I finished "Running" the next morning, and after sharing it with my writing group, submitted it to the "Sport Literate" essay contest. I didn't expect much. The essay was written in a simplified form, to mimic running cadence. I was a bit embarrassed by it, actually.

"Running" won the "Sport Literate" essay contest and editor William Meiners later submitted it to the "Best American Sports Writing" anthology, where it was chosen as part of this year's collection, along with writers from The New Yorker, Outside and The New York Times Magazine.

I still don't consider "Running" an essay. It's a prayer, a litany. It's that one moment of standing on top of a mountain and being grateful for every bad space in your life because it's led you here, to this one perfect and beautiful and wild place.

-- Cinthia Ritchie

From "Running":

It's past midnight and I'm running down Flattop Mountain, the air milky grey with the Alaska twilight, the moon fat and full and hanging in the sky like something ripe. I leap over rocks, hurl myself down small ridges. All around is silence, an immense and penetrating silence that fills my chest and hums my veins until I can taste it in my mouth, linger it against my tongue.

Once I saw a wolf up here, late at night, the dog and I running in the green darkness, and we froze, all three of us. I grabbed the dog's collar, held tight. The wolf lifted its head and loped off through the brush, its stride smooth and achingly graceful. I wanted to follow, wanted to feel my own stride even out until it became lush and primal, until I lost all sense of time and logic, until wildness wept through my veins.

On the way down, I tore up the mountain, scree and mud flying as I ran, my hands clenched, tiny cries escaping my throat and lifting up in pure and terrible glory.

Growing up on a farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, I ran through the fields and pastures, down the hilly dirt roads, across the marsh and through the narrow, cold creek. Arms outstretched, eyes slit against the sun's glare. I ran in cheap Kmart sneakers, kicking them off in mid-stride, the grass warm and dry against my bare heels, callused tough and hard as an animal's. Sun hot, air smelling of hay and dust and sweet cow manure. I ran because I loved the feel of wind on my shoulders, loved my hair scattering my face, loved the wisdom of my knees instinctively bending to absorb the shock of rocks and hard, narrow gullies.

I ran because my father was dead, my mother was angry and there was a new man in the house, his ugly, scarred hands pressing against me at night. But mostly I ran because the sun was wide, the corn was high and the mud in the creek was cool and forgiving on my hot, scratched feet. Each afternoon as the shadows stretched and the poplar trees darkened and the air stiffened with pollen, I sat on the bank and offered my feet to the water. When the coolness hit my skin I arched my neck and stared up at the cruel, blank sky. I didn't yet understand how pleasure or pain could overpower and transform you before wearing you back down to your own small self. But I knew that Jesus washed the feet of beggars, that God was dead, that the words the priest spoke each Sunday cut against the round, female heat of my own body. I knew how to make myself small, how to stay quiet and look the other way, how to be a girl, yes. But mostly, I knew how to run.

I am afraid of so many things yet when I run I am fearless, gutsy; determined. I wind through trails frequented by bears and covered in scat, my bear bell clinking against my water belt. I love being out in the woods and mountains, love the solitude, the birch trees glowing like milk in the twilight. Often, I see foxes and wolves, loons and eagles, moose and lynx and bears. Each time I suck in my breath, slow my pace, that childlike wonder, that thump of wildness inside my chest.

Sometimes as I'm running I thank the bears and moose for allowing me to run through their territory. I devise little songs I sing as I run, and these soothe me, keep me company, because it's easy to allow yourself to fall to fear. Once, on my favorite trail, I encountered a sow with two cubs, and my dog took off after them as I helplessly shouted for her to return, and then a growl like I'd never heard, a fierce and wild cry as the sow charged my dog. It was a fake charge and my dog held her ground as I stood paralyzed by fright, my bladder releasing, the bear heading back toward the woods with her cubs. I collapsed on the trail, in the mud, sobbing, the dog whimpering, both of us scared yet strangely exhilarated. Because to see such fierceness, such wildness. To see it, feel it! To be there!

Mostly, though, I see bears as they slip off into the woods, I see the backs of their haunches or the jut of their snouts as they peer out from the trees as if wondering who I am and why I run through their trails without ever once stopping to snack on grass and berries. A few years ago, running in Kincaid Park before dark, I heard a slight rustle, glanced over and in the woods parallel to me a sow and a cub ran, all three of us loping along, lost in our own world, our own thoughts. I don't know if that bear saw me. Its gait never altered and for a few seconds I ran along with it, hundreds of yards separating us yet it was as if we were running together. I quickly veered off on a side trail, picked up my pace and put as much distance as possible between us. Yet sometimes when I can't sleep, when I'm restless and worried, I think of how it felt running in the same direction as that bear, and how effortlessly it moved, how gracefully, and I feel a twinge inside my chest as fierce and persistent as hunger.

Cinthia Ritchie's debut novel, "Dolls Behaving Badly," was released in February by Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. Her work can be found in Evening Street Review, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, The New York Times Magazine and more than 60 literary magazines. She blogs about writing and running at