Walking Far Enough To Find Our Way Back To Ourselves

In ‘Running Through Fear,’ an extended excerpt from her memoir Running Home, ultra-marathoner Katie Arnold writes of the aftermath of an assault she suffered while out on the trail:

Afterward, in the disorienting fog of sorrow, everything scared me: my babies, so small and vulnerable and precious; my own body, once so strong but now ancient and aching with grief….My anxiety lasted more than a year. I tried everything, but the only remedy that worked was the one that had always worked: running. On the surface, it seemed like the least logical choice. I lived in constant terror of my body breaking down, but I pushed my limits every day, clocking long miles alone in the wilderness. I didn’t know the first thing about training for a 50K ultramarathon, but deep down it made sense. My father had raised me to find solace outside, on camping trips and bicycle trips and river trips, on long rambles through the Shenandoah Valley, up mountains in Maine, in musty tents in Nova Scotia. Maybe, I reasoned, if I ran far enough, deep enough, into the trail networks and hills, into myself, I would find my way back to the fearless girl I’d once been.

Arnold’s final sentences above strike a deep chord within me. I’ve always been anxious and fearful, and for such a person the ‘great wide world outside our doors’ is full of reasons to be anxious and fearful. But walking in the outdoors always made me less anxious, more calm, more inclined to sleep deeply at night. (Except when I was alone but that feeling has changed.) Indeed, when I stayed out on a trail, I was possessed of a curious vision, one that came to me in my other physical exertions, and which I imagine, must be shared by many: it was a feeling that if I did this long enough, every single weakness and impurity and imperfection, whether physical or psychological, would be swept out of me, flushed out by the relentless flood of physical exertion, of perpetual movement. The trails I walked on, whether flat or downhill, or uphill, all seemed in one important sense to head ‘upwards,’ up toward a zone of deliverance and clarity where all the  muddled thoughts and feelings of the ‘lower’ regions would be made more distinct and pure. The feeling of being cleansed–internally, even if not on the ‘outside’–by the walk was euphoric; the simplicity of the solution was stunning. All I had to do was keep walking; my steps would take me closer to that state of mind and being that I so desperately craved. This was a ‘stairway to heaven’ that seemed real, not fantastic, right here on earth. Just put one foot in front of the other; repeat.  For as long as it took.

Things don’t work like that, of course. But to possess this powerful vision for change, for relief, was in itself empowering and relieving. It is one I carry with me every time I leave the city, head to the trail, and start walking. Always upwards.

A Simple, Memorable Act Of Kindness

In a pair of posts which cast a wistful glance back at my running days, I made note of a graduate school summer in which I brushed up against the edges of genteel poverty:

I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as a waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek. [Original post here]

[W]ith my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility. [Original post here]

Those ‘sunken cheeks’ had come about because, as I note above, I just wasn’t eating or drinking too much; I couldn’t afford to. I went back to an old and dreaded routine: fueling myself on coffee during the mornings, and then buying 99-cent burritos at Taco Bell for lunch and cooking some rice and beans for dinner. (Another possibility was rice and beans at a Tex-Mex joint on 42nd Street.)

My dire financial straits were not known to all around me. My graduate school friends thought I was absent from parties and drinking dates because I was avoiding awkward social encounters with my girlfriend–partially true–and busy working on incomplete term papers–also partially true, even if a rather charitable description of the hours I spent in the computer labs staring idly at word processor screens. But I was also absent from life in the polis because I could not afford to be out and about. Hermithood was mine by choice and circumstance alike.

But my physical appearance, my relentless consumption of the endless refills of coffee at my favorite diner–the now-defunct Grace on 43rd Street,  and my persistent declining of other menu choices had not gone unnoticed by the waiter–‘Joe’–who was our regular server there. Joe was affable and gruff, with enough time for a sardonic quip or two as he hustled from one table to the other, running a tight ship for his boss through the busy breakfast and lunch times of the day. He saw me every day, and he was paying attention.

One afternoon, I finished my third or fourth cup of coffee, and prepared to head out to the lab for a couple of hours before heading out uptown for my waiting gig. (On the days I worked there, I was guaranteed a full meal at the end of the day.) As I picked up my backpack, Joe walked by and said, “Wait up.” I waited. Joe walked over to a basket full of leftover bagels with cream cheese, picked up one, walked over, tossed it on the table, and walked away. I picked it up, put it in my backpack and walked out. The boss was busy at the cash register, his eyes still facing down.

Joe and I never talked about that bagel. We didn’t need to. And I haven’t forgotten.

Wishful Dreaming And Running On Cold Mornings

Last night, my preparations for bed included a little collection of running gear: tights, shorts, gloves, hat, an inner layer, and finally, an outer sweatshirt. I was planning to make a return to a running routine after having been diverted and distracted back in December. I had checked in with my running partner to see if he was going for his usual morning run, and it was on. With a slight caveat: it was, after all, going to be twenty degrees in the morning. Did I still want to go? With some measure of apprehension, I confirmed my intentions to brave the cold. My spirits were considerably bolstered by my wife, who assured me I would warm up once I began moving. Still, as I turned in for the night, I was not looking forward to stepping out of my heated building, out onto a still-dark morn and a deserted icy sidewalk swept clean by a chilly wind. The sensible folks would either still be in bed, or only venturing out with far more apparel than I would be. Wasn’t I too old for this shit?

An indeterminate number of hours later, I found myself stepping out of my co-op building. It was warm, almost balmy. All around me, on my street and its sidewalks, I could see people, my neighbors, standing around, talking, laughing, making merry. I walked down the street bemused and pleasantly surprised; this was so much more tolerable than I had anticipated. I could live with this late spring vibe, I thought.

And then I woke up.

Ah yes, wishful dreaming. A most interesting phenomenon. In my high school and college days, I would sometimes find myself dreaming about my latest crush and her willing acceptance of my charming conversation and sparkling repartee; she would join me for a walk, look deep into my eyes, perhaps even hold my hand. (These romantic reveries were invariably quite chaste; there was no question of rounding the bases in them; perhaps a few halting steps away from home plate at best.) And then, I would wake up and spend the next day gazing at her from afar, cursing the waking hours that had removed that wondrous nocturnal proximity we had enjoyed a few hours before.

As last night’s slumbers and many others in the intervening years have taught me, wishing for magical interventions never quite goes away, especially in our unconscious states. Sometimes stubborn obstacles to personal and professional success disappear; sometimes long-missed companions grace me with their presence; sometimes I have already begun a long-awaited vacation. And many others, of course.

We retain, it seems, in this dimension at least, some measure of the child we once were.

Note: Oh, and this morning? It was twenty-one degrees with a wind chill of seventeen degrees. I ran about three and a half miles. My fingertips and toes got a little numb, but that was about it. Motion did keep me warm, and I returned exhilarated. I plan to go out Friday morning. I don’t think I’ll have the same dream on Thursday night.

Running On Dark Mornings: How Virtuous It Is

In his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, (which I read as a pre-teen), Muhammad Ali often described his training routines. Among their components was something called ‘roadwork.’ I knew it involved running, but didn’t fully understand the roles shadow boxing and jumping rope played in it. Roadwork was an early morning business; Ali would leave his home when it was still dark outside, and often return home, just as his family was stirring. For some reason, nothing quite captured for me the essence of the champion he was than the fact that he was out and about, in the darkness, finishing up his beginning to the day before others had even acquired full consciousness. That image of the boxer stepping out into the cold dark–I always imagined it to be cold, even if Ali might have been describing a summer training session–to hone his body and mind for the punishing fifteen-round examination that awaited him always did it.

I have thought of that reaction on a couple of occasions over the past few weeks as the days have grown shorter and cooler–as I step out for my Tuesday/Friday morning run. Thanks to my running partner‘s work schedule changing, we now meet just a little earlier, and so it is just a little darker when I wake up to the alarm, drink my coffee, lace up, and head out.  The alarm’s sound is unwelcome; I hate leaving my warm bed; the coffee offers some relief and courage. But all dissonance disappears once I step out the door, onto the street. At that moment, all doubt vanishes. Any prior conceptions of oneself as stiff, sleepy, unluckily deprived of comfort while the fortunate slumber on are dispelled. They are replaced, instead, by just a little chest-puffery: Lookit me, stepping out in the dark, braving the elements, boldly going forth to exert my sinews. Truth be told, I feel like a champ. Not the greatest by a long shot but a champ anyway.

Around me, the city is stirring, slowly, to life. Some folks are headed to work, yet others are returning from late shifts. They, and I, seem drawn together in our virtuous waking state; they, and I, seem like pioneers. Who knows what these early hours are like? We do.

The end of the run–a pleasant, easy paced 3.4 mile loop around Prospect Park–brings its own reward.  As I come down the final hill to the closing stretch, using my acquired downward momentum to generate a final speedy kick for the finish line, I am flanked by a glorious crimson and orange sunrise on my left, coming up over Prospect Park Lake, coloring its calm waters, and seemingly heralding my triumphant breasting of the tape. And then, once I begin my walk back home, I am able to savor, at leisure, the fabled runner’s after-glow. A day that will feature its inevitable share of disappointments lies ahead of me; for now, it’s good to get this deposit into the feel-good piggy bank out of the way.

Note: An earlier entry in the ‘How Virtuous It Is’ series is here.

The Post-Running Glow, And Watching Batting Practice

On Tuesday morning last, I awoke at 5:45 AM, drank coffee, changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, laced up my running shoes and went for my now-regular twice-a-week 3.4 mile-loop of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. (I accompany an old friend, a far more serious runner than me, on the days he does his ‘easy runs.’)

After we had finished our run, I was sweaty, and suffused with the endorphin-saturated glow that runners like to term ‘the runner’s high.’  My way home lay along a small cluster of sporting fields: tennis courts, football fields, baseball diamonds. As I walked back, slowly, along the wire-mesh fences that marked off the boundaries and edges of these zones of recreation from the walkways and parking lots of the offices of the Park Authority, the summer sun’s rays, already finely honed to a warm sharpness by 730AM, shone through their grills, drawing diffraction patterns on me and all that lay around me. I was primed to regard this little urban oasis’ landscape with a benevolent and appreciative eye; this early in the day, as other residents of the city scrambled to prepare for their work and school days, I had already acquired the virtuous distinction of having performed service for both body and soul. And I had spent time with a friend, talking about matters cultural and political and emotional. Conversation with friends; physical endeavor; quiet meditative time; there seemed to be a Epictetan aura around my simple doings that morning.

At one end of the baseball diamond, a father and son pair appeared engaged in a distinctive summertime occupation: batting practice. The young lad adorned himself with his helmet, and twirled his bat in anticipation; his father, away on the pitcher’s mound, behind the practice L-screen, reached, again and again, into a sack full of baseballs, picked out one, and threw it over at varying speeds and trajectories; the batter in training swung or let go, trusting his judgment of balls and strikes; sometimes balls thudded into the fences behind which I now stood, my progress home temporarily halted, gazing on at this spirited attempt to acquire competence in a difficult sporting task; sometimes lusty contact was made and the baseball departed to sundry corners of the field, awaiting retrieval once the sack of spares had been depleted. Here was sport, here was family, here was physical aspiration.

I could not stay too long; my day’s responsibilities awaited me; I had to get home in time to aid my wife in her departure for work by taking my daughter to day-care; and then, I would have to turn to my writing, my syllabus preparation, and unfortunately, my perennial states of distraction. All too soon, I would be possessed by anxiety and self-doubt about my intellectual abilities, my suitability for the task of writing; I would fret and fume by all that I would leave undone as the day drew on. So this little morning-time instruction in that oldest of lessons, about the cost-free nature of simple pleasures, acquired in retrospect, as many of life’s experiences often do, some of the hue the summer sun had afforded to my treed and shaded surroundings on my walk back home from a run around the park.

Note: In an older post, I had regretted my inability to run regularly thanks to an old ankle injury; this latest bout of running marks a return of sorts to a much beloved activity of mine. I do not intend to risk injury and only run twice a week.

The Pleasures of Running, Part Deux

The good folks at WordPress have been nice enough to put one of my recent posts ‘The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running‘ into their Freshly Pressed selection. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of new readers and some very nice comments. I’d like to able to respond to each one individually, but it is looking extremely unlikely. In lieu of that, let me just offer a collective ‘Thanks very much – your words mean a great deal to me’ and some more thoughts on my running experiences.

One of the reasons I developed what might be described as a ‘deep connection’ with running was that it provided aid and comfort through some difficult times. The summer that I referred to in my post, when I became extremely lean, was one such time. I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek.

For a few weeks, what kept me from going absolutely stark raving bonkers was running. I made sure to run as often as possible, even if, given my generally gloomy disposition, stepping out for a run felt very difficult. I lived on 95th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan, and starting my six-mile loop in Central Park meant running first past Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues till I got to Central Park West. As I would run, I would second-guess myself: Did I really want to do this? It seemed so tedious; my body felt stiff and lethargic; six miles seemed very long and the park very far away. At every light, I would consider turning back.

Then, magically, I was at Central Park West. I would cross the street, run across the lawn, and find myself on the paved road of the loop. At that point, everything faded away. All I had to do was keep running till I came back to this starting point. The simplicity of it all was refreshing; my actions acquired definition. Some fifty minutes or so later, I was done. Reinvigorated, renewed.

My favorite running story from that summer, unsurprisingly, mentions my grim financial state. Finding my waiter wages insufficient, I went looking for work as a bartender. I wrote up my name, address, and phone number on fifty index cards and starting from Soho one afternoon, slowly walked up Broadway (and later, Columbus and Amsterdam), stopping in at bars, inquiring about employment possibilities and handing out my ‘business card’ as I did so. Finally, after walking some one hundred and ten street blocks, I arrived at home, tired, sweaty, my feet just a little sore from all that pavement-pounding. Evening had set in, and the night lay ahead of me. My roommates were not at home, and I had no engagements to occupy me. No dates, no cold-beer-based encounters at bars awaited me. What was I to do, in this bustling city full of strangers?

I laced up my shoes and ran six miles.

The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running

Late into the night of my 28th birthday, I was doing a passable impression of a dancing fool. It was almost four in the morning, I had consumed enough alcohol to administer local anesthetic to a small platoon of foot soldiers, and I was blithely unaware of impending danger. But there it was, in the shape of a hurtling body that belonged to a friend of mine, and which mysteriously, after traversing the length and breadth of the living room in whose corner I was safely dancing, placed itself in a load-bearing position on my right ankle.  When bodies had been moved, I found a rather large protuberance where my ankle used to be. Ice, an emergency room visit, crutches, in that order. And the end of my running career.

Before my right ankle suffered that disastrous third-degree sprain, I used to run. Respectably long distances in Central Park, with an eye on completing the New York Marathon someday. My longest run was eleven miles (2 laps of the reservoir, one loop of the park, and then another lap of the reservoir); my usual run was a morning six-miler, the classic loop of Central Park. I ran in summer afternoons and winter mornings alike; I ran in the rain and I ran in the snow. (My late winter evening runs through Central Park in the winters, when I could see the lights come on in the buildings that line Central Park West and the Museum Mile were as enchanting as anything else I have experienced in this great city.) I ran with professors and graduate students; I ran with roommates. Running made my financial insolvency easier to bear; it provided easy entertainment on days and evenings that sought diversion. (One summer, with my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility.)  I was never a particularly graceful runner but on a good day, I always felt like I glided through Central Park’s beauty, experiencing it in a way that was distinct from my interactions enabled by riding on a bike or by walking.  Running was yet another way to discover New York City, a physically and mentally transformative one.

But a busted ankle that made my right side unstable, and which necessitated the wearing of orthotics (to this day), coupled with sloppy execution of a rehabilitation program, meant that this running was first curtailed and then slowly choked off. I injured myself a year later, when I returned to running a few months later, and then again several years later when I tried again. I became nervous and tentative, and grew hesitant about lacing up a pair of running shoes. My running is now restricted to the occasional lap of Prospect Park, to attempts to run fast 5Ks.

Those occasional laps still manage, effortlessly, to transport me, even if only for much shorter periods, to those days when muscle-powered locomotion at eight miles an hour was mysteriously capable of inducing states of physical and meditative bliss.