I seldom go for really long runs now. It’s not just because I’m lazy; I just don’t possess the same sort of self-loathing desire for pain that I did before. Running is pain, and like any pain, it makes you appreciate things that you normally take for granted, whether it’s breathing or being able to move your legs or having enough water in your body to survive. Anything that’s painful demands to be thought about, not just felt.
A lot of people will tell you running is an emotional escape, that it can be a place of retreat for you to think about things, and really, that’s all bullshit. If you’re running the right way, the painful way, you can never think about anything other than the basics for more than a moment. The solace is in this forced state of being. The pain is therapeutic.
Most bodies aren’t meant to handle long distance running. Simply put, using the same specific muscles in the same way over and over again inevitably leads to overuse, inflammation, and injury. Today I am plagued by chronic inflammation of my plantar fascia; without orthotics, I’ll be limping by the end of most days.
I was never unaware of these things on long runs, my feet and knees pounding over and over against the pavement, each step promising not only present but future pain. I was acutely aware of the pain and risk of injury along with everything else. In fact, I think I ran in part for the injuries. I started running in high school, which was for me, as for a lot of people, the height of self-loathing.
Most people at that age need some sort of self-harm to survive, whether it’s something actually dangerous like self-mutilation or loving someone who doesn’t care about you, or overindulging in some form of artificial happiness. In the words of John Hughes, “At that age, it often feels just as good to feel bad as it does to feel good.” Most of my happiest moments in high school happened in the middle of some long, painful 10k.
It sets in usually after the first mile, when your lungs start to burn and your feet throb and your knees ache and you try and focus on continuing and ignore all of the reasons why you shouldn’t, why you should just slow down, good logical reasons like the beauty of nature and the profound symbolism of what you’re doing and the idea that life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
That’s John Hughes again, the adolescent guru. He probably knows a lot more about growing up than I do, but then again, I bet he’s never ground out a 10k in under 40 minutes and felt that exclusive sort of exhaustion that draws you closer to your body than anything else, that masochistic intimacy that was my dread at mile one and my reprieve at mile five, the pain that takes you to a place where there’s no more gray area, no more I should go faster, just I can’t, and that’s okay.