Widgets Magazine


The Pain (and Joy) of Running

I’m in Nantucket with my friend and her family, and though I’ve never felt quite like I belonged in a place like this, it’s quite nice. Beach life has a way of seeping into you, making your whole body heavy. Not with tiredness (I’m sleeping too much) or physical exhaustion. Is it the air, I wonder? Is the mixture of sea salt and a warm breeze a kind of narcotic? I feel like Dorothy falling asleep in a bed of poppies, too limp to think. I fall asleep like a happy baby, walk like an elderly woman without anywhere to go.

On the first night I was here, I found myself sitting alone on the beach, staring out at the waves. I felt so at peace that the world seemed to close in around me, everything going still for a moment. Inner peace: it had seemed so deceptively close then, and I wondered whether this is all it took – shipping out to paradise, and leaving all the worries and regrets back on the mainland.

This is what being a kid was – is – like: staring out at the sky and sea with nothing in between. I turned to the sky, and suddenly sensed its infinitude: a mast unfurling all the way to beaches in Australia and Thailand, a thousand adventures waiting to happen. Maybe I would share this sky, on a new beach, with a gaggle of foreign friends, or a lover. Imagine how infinite the sky would seem then. I was already having dreams in my dreams, a bit of self-inception.

I turned to the sea and studied the fog, imagined whales and old foghorns plowing through the night. So this is what it was like to have been a kid: there was adventure in everything. It showed itself to me in this perfect kind of silence, where it was just me and the earth, and no unanswered emails in between.

But of course, this moment of peace didn’t last. I’m too weary, too cynical, to really believe it would. Even in a place like this, my old anxieties have a way of tracking me down, like a spy who just can’t escape her foes no matter how many names she tries on or identities she wriggles into. Sure enough, the next morning I woke up at 4 a.m., that evil hour, and couldn’t fall back asleep. An hour of tossing and turning, eyes half-opening and closing, huffing at the light, until I finally threw up my hands and gave up. I put on my sneakers and headed down the road towards the beach.

I was not technically supposed to be running. I had a sketchy-looking mole removed last week (lovely, right?) and the patch of skin it formerly occupied was now an unsightly purple wound tied up with stitches. The doctor told me that if I ran, the wound wouldn’t heal as well and might leave behind a more visible scar. But I couldn’t not run — I had to get rid of these anxieties, whatever they were (nameless and tangled at this hour). And so I ran in spite of it, this pair of purple lips pouting at me angrily all the way. Good, I thought: I’d been so worn out obsessing over beauty image as of late that this came as a kind of relief. So what if there was a fat scar running alongside my thigh? Matter of fact, here’s a present for you: a scar. Learn what to make of that.

But beauty’s only the half of it. I remember one night in May, when I was stressed out of my mind. It must have been 9 p.m., and I got the urge to run. I don’t know; I’m not a runner. My calves get sore and all that. But I put on my sneakers anyways and headed into the night. I dashed underneath pools of orange streetlight, past headlights. I turned up the volume and ran as fast as I could, stuffing all the anger I could muster into my legs so that when they hit the pavement, they snuffed them out right there.

Man, did it feel good. Man, did I feel vindicated. Running like that for myself. Not the Gods of beauty. I put on another song, a song so bloated with memories of Coachella (the feeling of being lost; the ecstasy of dancing; so many rises and falls packed into it that it might as well be a Shakespeare tragedy) that I wanted to dance and cry at the same time. I tilted my head back, felt the wind rushing through me. I felt like I was floating. I probably looked like a crazy person but, man, was it liberating.

Sitting on the beach, peaceful as it was, I felt a little helpless waiting for it to end, knowing too well that it would. I thought that maybe, if I diligently held on to the feeling, I could keep it in my grasp for a while longer. If I forgot about it even for a second, I was afraid, it would slip right out of me like a con artist. I couldn’t enjoy the moment; I was too wrapped up with prolonging it.

I was powerless. Sitting on the beach, I was waiting for the peace to decide to up and leave. But running, I was hunting it down, seizing it, carving it out of nothing. It’s one thing to be blessed with a visit from Tranquility. One could wallow there for eternity. But it’s another thing to claw yourself out of the very opposite: the throes of sheets, the pale light of early morning, a mind that won’t shut up. The moments of quiet are few and far in between, but the struggle is everywhere: it’s the white noise, the undercurrent of our lives.

That said, arriving at those moments of impossible stillness are feats in themselves. Intense peace is not possible without intense stress. You can’t experience a release if there’s nothing to be released from. But the experience of actually experiencing acute happiness is passive: you have no control over when it slips away. The more you fight to prolong it, the more easily it skitters away. The only thing to do is enjoy it – harder said than done when you know it’s going to end and don’t know when you’ll see it next. I guess I like running because you can fight for it — if not to feel happiness, then to not feel sad. It’s like clawing out of something, into something. And this, this feels like power. Not sitting on a beach, but hitting the pavement.

That is what I’ll remember: the lighthouse coming into view in the golden light, running my hands through the dewy tall grass, stopping to peer down the crumbling cliff. An adventure. Me: a kid poking through her backyard. Not running to burn calories or to get in shape. Running, then stopping, letting my eyes wander. I felt I had all the time in the world. I could be here all morning. I could run for as long as I wanted, past the lighthouse if I wanted.

Electric. That’s what it felt like. Electric, like sitting on the beach and imagining whales ballooning in the ocean, and what the sky looked like in Melbourne. The electricity rooted in dreams of faraway places, but planted right here, in the present moment.

Emanating from my tingling legs or maybe my heart spinning from its sudden catharsis. The lighthouse, the dewy grass, the light spreading everywhere. Like my childlike avatar sitting on the beach, I took it all in without a filter, expect that was it. I didn’t imagine lighthouses in New Zealand, or how the light might fall on a beach in Thailand.

I guess you could say I was content here. But I could’ve been content anywhere: the peace was coming from within. I’d lost the battle for sleep, but somewhere made it to the edge of this bluff. I wanted to cry for no good reason (and I did, almost, I was so tired now). The scar was squealing with rage; the exhaustion was crashing back into me. Sleep: sometimes I get the feeling it’s one of those “friends” who’s friends with you on a good day and conveniently deserts you on bad ones. And sure enough, here it was, back with open arms to take me in. But I didn’t need it anymore. I was too awake.

  • here goes

    Alex, I really like your articles. They are thoughtful and worth thinking about. (Also, I like the writing: for example, the spy metaphor in this one.) Perhaps for that reason they also can be a bit frustrating.

    I keep starting to write a comment on one of your articles and then erasing it, which might happen this time too. [It didn’t.]

    I did complete a comment once. In response to your “Joy vs. Pleasure” article, in which you suggested that the greater of the two, joy, is attained after hard work, I argued that the distinction is rather that one is founded on principle — which indeed may require hard work, but not always — while the other is not.

    But my disagreement with your distinction is just an example of some more general issue that bothers me. I keep failing to get at its essence; I think of examples instead. Perhaps those will have to do.

    One example in this column is the distinction between exercise for the euphoria it induces (that euphoria is why a lot of people get really into some form of endurance sport: running, swimming, cycling, or all three) and as some perceived obligation, in this case “to burn calories or to get in shape”. Why must this obligation exist? It is only because one allows it to exist that it does.

    In fact, the obligation “to get in shape” is not really a hard one. It does not take much to be healthful. Eat decently and exercise a little most days. I suspect the first part is the more truthful: it is code, I think, for feeling compelled (I don’t want to write “wanting”) to live up to some perceived societal standard of beauty. That is wrong. One enables it by letting it control some aspect of how one lives.

    There are consequences, and none of them good, when one behaves according to a norm that reason shows to be wrong. For example, attempting to meet societal standards of beauty in the best case will simply lead to circumstances in which one’s failure to continue to meet those standards will be catastrophic.

    In your “Joy vs. Pleasure” column, some of the examples you gave of hard work ostensibly leading to joy in fact involved destruction of beauty. I’m thinking here, for example, of climbing Mt. Everest. It is fundamentally wrong for destruction to accompany joy; and I argued that in fact it cannot. Surely the two are not compatible.

    What I think is missing here is the recognition that what happiness we can have in this troubled world must be founded on radical and careful thought about what is good and how one can do that good in this world. It is not enough — not even close to enough — to try to escape by running, or to hope summer release from school work will permit some peace. That is not because you don’t deserve peace, but rather because it is incommensurate with the wrong in the world. If you find that your school work wears you down, or is petty (“an esoteric fact about Andrew Jacksons political views will never be [as important and useful as…]”), then that work is not for you (it is for someone who thinks there is good in understanding Jackson’s political views, and can do nothing but puzzle them out (I’m certainly not such a person)); something else is.

    Such purposeful, and so necessarily radical, living may seem like a great burden. But I think that is what happiness demands. Happiness, joy, peace, contentment, whatever we want to call it, can exist only if one is trying to add harmony to a disharmonious world. One must try not to be a victim of what /is/, but instead be an instigator of what /should be/. I don’t mean that happiness is earned by such thinking and actions, but rather that one begins to feel worthy of it, and I think one cannot be happy without feeling worthy of happiness. (This latter point may have nothing to do with you.)

    In short, it is better to decide up front what is right and what is wrong and live according to the former without regard for what others think. To do so, I grant, seems ridiculously naive: one might say childlike. (I do not; I think we forget the cruelties and callousness of children. If by “adult” we mean someone “too weary, too cynical”, then I suggest there is some other state of maturity than the child and the adult for which we should strive: one in which one’s lifestyle has the naivety of all things that are essentially good, and none of the emptiness or cynicism of the compromised.)

    Apologies if I seem like a troll, missed the mark horribly, or just wrote stupid stuff.