A new era begins and I’m searching around for meaning. I see — really for the first time — that work has meaning, and that succeeding at a sport requires work. I didn’t want to work before because I didn’t think I had to. The carte blanche of youth meant discovery, recklessness, hedonism and their attendant lessons.
Yes, I once ran a half-marathon in 15-degree weather, and another on a rainy day, and a third on a hot spring day. I ran the New York City marathon. I ran the odd 10k and countless 5ks and cold cross-country races in the Bronx. I raced through the alphabet of avenues up Ocean Avenue from Coney Island to Park Slope. I was trying to reclaim the glory days of high school and college and push them further, like so many tens of thousands of athletic young women and men before me.
But I never really asked myself why, and the limpid moments of peace and bliss — running’s main attraction — were slow to come in those days. Though it pains me to say it now in light of the Boston Marathon’s horrific victimization, the romance of road races, and of the marathon, the ultimate road race, was mostly lost on me. The romance of training for it was not. But the end goal, though intimidating enough to motivate me, didn’t ignite a spark strong enough to make me do it again.
Like so many foolish first-timers, I ran on adrenaline down Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, cheered on by friends and colleagues from my first writing gig. By the time I got to Manhattan I was toast, my mile time slipping from the high fives to the high sevens. I was proud of myself, yes, but all those months of work, I thought. They led to an hour or so of utter bliss followed by two hours of utter defeat. I was too young, perhaps, and too green. I was reckless, I was driven by blind ambition, not by joy. I was driven by the destination, not the journey. Looking back, the journey, those months of training while working three jobs, is the only thing I remember fondly.
Since then, there have been a few uninspiring pockets of my life in which I’ve run, mostly to keep my physique — as opposed to my body — in shape. To give it shape, to suck the cellulite out of my legs, to firm up my torso and sculpt my arms. But vanity is not nearly enough. Within weeks or even days, I give up the pursuit of washboard abs and lean quads. I just don’t care that much about the subtle physical perks that running provides. It has no real meaning, and it seems capable of being taken away at any time. What will remain then? Just the mind, a vapid mind. There has to be a better way — to health, happiness, enlightenment. Somewhere in here, I know that running provides me those three things better than anything else. But what spell needs to be cast to get those three things to emerge, to keep emerging?
I’ve always felt like a fish out of water running in New York City, even though running is arguably the most popular sport in this town. Everyone gets looked at here; I look at everyone. Yet I hate being looked at while I’m running. It makes me feel foolish, that I’m after some slippery goal, trying too hard, doing something that’s out of place here. I run for miles outside, then go inside to a gym to run even more miles, trading the elements for the peace and relatively forgiving surface of the treadmill belt, to tack on the extra miles that are a daily requirement of anyone training for a distance race. How absurd it must look. Ambition runs rampant in the city, yes. But running? How can you stand it? I hear them — some collective, non-running, nightlife-loving them — say.
So the rest of the days and nights, I hide in a different uniform. My abundance of spandex and polyester shirts are rolled up and tucked neatly into their own drawer. No one can detect the runner in me when I’m wearing boots and black jeans. I go out, I drink, while some hamster in my mind runs on its wheel as I try to enjoy myself. When I laugh, my muscles hurt. If you’re running miles every day, your body is always working for it, always recovering from it. My heart sometimes skips a beat. My lungs hiccup in a sigh. My breaths are deeper. My sleep is too. This is the only way to be.
And while I’m sitting at work or even at a bar, I’m often stretching my legs in some discrete manner or another while wearing those boots and black jeans. And as I walk down the street most days, there’s a stiffness to my gait — tentativeness, shorter strides. The pain is a reminder of running, a badge of honor and a pleasant nag. All that work yesterday, and I have to do it again today. I used to hate that. A tough workout was reward enough, was work enough. I had to do it again tomorrow? Often I couldn’t stomach that reality. But now: in spite of the fatigue, in spite of the monotony of this city, with all its painful concrete and tarmac surfaces, running is often the high point of my day.
So my self-perception, and my perception of running in this city, has been wrong. I let those perceptions get in the way of what I wanted to do. I let them stifle my vision of what running could be. I was looking for an easy way out.
Next to me in a restaurant right now, a woman is telling her companion about her marathon ambitions. “I came within two minutes of the qualifying time for my age group,” she says proudly, and my ears perk up. A few moments later: It’s like a drug, she says. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane.
At night, late at night, I can be found running calculations — grade, elevation, pace, distance — on my computer, a secret domestic activity and daily ritual. I map routes and click through Google Street View to find the few hilly streets in the five boroughs and figure out exactly how steep they are. I plan the following day’s workout. I log my weightlifting regimen. A lot of my data-collection amounts to splitting hairs. Does it really matter whether I ran 9.1 miles or 9.2 today? But I relish the data-collection. It’s meditative, like washing dishes or taking a shower. Or, lest I forget, like running itself. So this must be work: this is my version of bookkeeping. The end result is not money (yet), but ever smaller — or ever bigger — numbers.
My mind tied off some of the loose ends of youth. The reasoning became: if I don’t have this in my life, what do I have? Plenty, but nothing else that anchors me quite so well. Everything else seems to require someone, or something, else: too many external factors.
I think that I’m trying to find happiness, but happiness sounds, again, like a far-off destination. If we only have a destination in mind, then we might find ourselves stopping too often to ask what the point of the journey is. Is the destination good enough? we’ll say cynically, when things get tough or boring. Or: Will it even be there?
To be fully immersed in a journey, in a plan, is to forget where you are entirely, to be so completely occupied with the current leg of the journey that you don’t have time for doubting questions and criticisms of your crowded, concrete surroundings, of yourself, or of the people looking at you on the street. And in those off hours when the body feels so close to the mind, all its pains and strengths so palpable, the mind shows its gratitude to the body for doing what it does so obediently, and so enthusiastically. Being in this mindset feels similar to running itself. It’s like a particularly good run — that ones that stick out in your mind months or even years later. You’re not plodding anymore. You’re floating.