The fact that I run is a source of mild embarrassment to me. It’s not the kind of thing I go around telling people because there’s something a little showoffy about distance running, even if you are as unaccomplished and slow as me. Runners don’t normally go around telling people how far they ran that day because that would be gauche, but a runner knows to the tenth, or even hundredth, of a mile exactly the distance he traveled, and how long it took him to do so. He knows the fastest time he has ever run that same distance. He carries those records like totems. Because its accomplishments are most often achieved in solitude, a runner’s pride can sometimes get the best of him. Pass a runner in your car on a cold early morning and I pretty much guarantee that runner is thinking I am better than you. It’s a terrible thought to have, even though it is correct.
Runners routinely endure suffering for no reason other than to have done so. What other reason is there to run five or fifteen or twenty-six point two miles at a time? Fitness can be achieved at shorter distances. Weight loss can be accomplished with less pain. So why else do it? Why else commit oneself to long slogs through rain and sun? Running is an act of vanity, one that measures itself not by flatterers but by footsteps. After tens of thousands of those footsteps, and miles and miles endured, is it not natural to believe oneself to be at least a little bit better than those who chose to convey themselves through space in more comfortable environs? No runner would ever express that thought out loud, of course. Except for me, because I am kind of an asshole.
Running is a private activity done publicly, usually on roads and trails. A runner puts herself into the world, half-dressed, hair a mess, face red, sweat-soaked and unattractive. She does this in full view of all passersby, showing herself in a more vulnerable state than she would ever do in her workplace or among her friends. In that running space, within the confines of her run, she is free from having to look a certain way or dress a certain way except as it pertains to running, from having to talk at all, from having to engage with anyone she does not wish to engage with, from having to be anything other than a small machine transporting the body from point A to point B. It is simple and beautiful for being simple.
People sometimes equate running with spirituality or meditation. To be out there, alone, in private reverie, can invite the same sorts of wonder and self-discovery as religious contemplation. Suffering, too, is intimately tied to both endeavors. Religion loves its penitents to suffer. Oh boy, does religion love suffering; it is through suffering that we find forgiveness and grace. Never through ice cream. But runners aren’t seeking forgiveness, and the only grace they are searching for is economy of motion. Some runners, like myself, look for clarity in their running, moments of escape from self, as the repetition unbinds mind from thought and allows the body to take control for a little while. But those moments are fleeting and never produce anything like enlightenment. Usually, they just produce a bum knee or an upset stomach. Spirituality is spirituality and running is running. Yes, running can evoke spiritual feelings. But so can watching leaves fall from trees. So can anything.
I run because I run. Which isn’t the reason I started running. I started running because I thought maybe I would find enlightenment. I thought great suffering would produce great knowledge. No. It doesn’t. Or maybe I just haven’t suffered enough. After all, I am still a novice runner. As I write this, I have yet to run my first half marathon, which is coming up in a couple weeks. Yesterday I ran the furthest I have ever run, eleven and a half miles (11.55 to be exact in a time of 1:52:38) fighting a keen desire to poo the entire way. When I got done, I went straight to the toilet. As I sat there, I started to pass out and had to remove myself to the floor, my shorts around my ankles, where I muttered a feeble “help” to an empty house. I broke out in a fresh, cold sweat and after several minutes of lying on the floor, I righted myself, and finished my business on the toilet. It was a bad end to an otherwise good run.
In the shower later, I noticed my bloody nipples and chafed arm. Nipples chafe and bleed from rubbing against shirt fabric. The arm, I think, grew irritated from rubbing against my sleeve hole. Today the redness is crosshatched like a waffle fry and it hurts when I touch it. My nipples are already scabbed over and pain free. But my calves are sore and my stomach still feels a little dicey. Tomorrow I will run again because I run. And also because I am better than you.