Saturday, May 31, 2014

Thoughts on Running

Common wisdom says that running attracts a specific type of personality; independent, persistent, and with a masochistic streak. Having run with all different kinds of individuals over the past fifteen years, however, I deny this categorically; all kinds, all types I have encountered in my daily travels under the sun. Running attracts a mongrel variety of souls, drawn to the democratic nature of running which compels them all to suffer impartially.

Maybe that is why I began my first runs. Alone, out in the fields on the southern edge of Grand Forks, where after you emerged from the thinning treelines there was nothing save fallow fields and flat country cut squarewise by gravel roads, the emptiness of it and the silence of it suggestive of some terrible vastation. Out there on those leveled plains one could feel the wind blow uninterrupted from its travels from some unknown corner of earth and the sun burning into the cracked clay below, nothing out there beyond a few isolated rampikes and a distant horizon where sky bleeds into ground and faraway thunderclouds explode soundlessly.

As the years passed I continued to run and along the way I encountered all manner of runners. I ran with a thin, dark Indian chemist imported from the Malabar coast, and a stocky bruiser from Crawfordsville who, once he heaved his vast bulk into motion, appeared to move solely by momentum. I ran through the forested switchbacks of Paynetown with an erudite librarian from Tennessee and a halfwitted pervert from Elletsville who expectorated thin lines of drool whenever he talked excitedly. I ran a hundred-mile relay in the dead of night accompanied only by a black man with an emaciated form and a head that bobbed wildly as he jogged and an indoor track athlete whose body was adorned with all matter of piercings and gemgaws and a tattoo of an anatomically correct heart stenciled into his left breast.

I ran with an insomniac exhibitionist who, in the brain-boiled delirium of his restless nights, would arise and run through campus clad in his shoes only and only once did he ever encounter someone, and that man probably mistaking him for some kind of crazed phantom. I ran with a pair of gentlemen from Michigan passing through Bloomington who seemed to revere running as some kind of aristocratic sport and I ran with a curlyhaired dwarf of a man from New Hampshire whose friend had suffocated under an avalanche and I ran with an old ultramarathon veteran from Ohio with lymph pooling in his legs and the joints of his knees encrusted with grout who reckoned he'd been running on his feet longer than I had been alive. I ran with a confirmed vegetarian from Rhode Island who spoke fondly of the days when there were no mounts and there were no weapons to adulterate the sacredness of the hunt and animals were run to the outermost limit of exhaustion whereupon their hearts burst silently.

Above all, I ran by myself. I ran through hail the size of grapes and I ran through thunder loud as a demiculverin next to your ear and I ran through heat and humidity seemingly designed to instill craziness into its victim. I ran down valleys of emerald grass and I ran up bluffs fledged with dying trees and I ran through dried gulches, my barkled shoes carrying clods of earth far away from where they were meant to be. I ran down all manner of roads, lanes, boulevards, avenues, trails, and paths. I ran during the meridian of the day and I ran in the inky blackness of the early morning where only the traffic lights showed any animation in their monotonous blinking and I ran until my clothes were rancid and my socks vile and my skin caked with grime and dried sweat. I ran until my hamstrings seized up and several mornings were spent testing the floor gingerly with my toes and feeling under my skin thickened bands of fascia stretched taut as guywires. I ground through workout after workout, spurring myself on with words so wretched and thoughts so horrid until Hell itself wouldn't have me, and I ran until the pain dissolved and was replaced by some kind of wild afflatus.

On the evening of August the eighteenth back in Wayzata I sat down with my father to outline my remaining training for the Indianapolis marathon in November. The old man's calculations included every duplicity, setback, and potential pitfall, until we had sketched out the next three months of my life upon a few thin sheets of paper. For the next seventy-seven days I would follow that calendar to the letter. From time to time the old man's visage would appear in my mind and grin approvingly.

Of the marathon itself, there is little to say. Some men's marathons are glorious; mine are time trials. The most contact I have with another human being is slowly passing him many miles into the race without exchanging any words or glances, merely the tacit acknowledgement of another event like any other occurring in succession until Doomsday. The day itself was cool with a slight breeze; beyond that, my memory recorded little. Tired legs; acid in my throat; a fleeting desire to void myself; steady breathing that seemed to tick off the moments until my inevitable expiration. Five-forties, five-thirties, five-fifties. Crowds of people on the sidelines with signs and noisemakers and cracked pavement underneath. Steady inclines followed by steady declines but most of all simply flat straight planes lying plumb with the vanishing horizon and at this point the mind begins to warp back within itself and discovers within its recesses small horrific lazarettes of insanity. As though I had encountered it all before. As though I had visited it in a dream.

The finish was blurry. My lower calves were shot but I finished just fine and seeing a familiar friend in the corral slapped him on the back which caused him to vomit up an alarming amount of chyme. As medics ran over to him I looked back at the clock and recognized that for the first time in my life had run under two hours and thirty minutes. I sat down wrapped in a blanket that crinkled like cellophane and took a piece of food from a volunteer and sat down, eating wordlessly. Somewhere in the back of my mind, coiled like an embryo, I knew that this was the end of something and that no matter how I tried it would not be put back together again.

I haven't raced since then. I still run regularly, but the burning compulsion has been snuffed out. I imagine that in my earlier years, when I had learned the proper contempt for non-racers, I would view myself now with disdain, but in actuality it feels like a relief. One ancient Greek in his later years was asked how it felt to no longer have any libido. He replied that it was like finally being able to dismount a wild horse.

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