The idea that running is a test of physical strength, of reaching the finish before the body breaks, quite literally, is nothing needing deeper explanation. Everything falls apart. Everyone internalizes this natural law as if it’s hardwired into our genetic code, probably because it is, in example if not theory. What comes harder are acknowledging the limits of the mind, the ever weakening resolve to retain hope in concert with the breaking body, but also the downward curve of light filled positivity towards something darker and more dire. The running struggle is either reconciling the two, bringing them into harmony like pulling up two sides of a zipper, or using the power of one to drag along the deadening weight of the other. In the repetition of running, these laws of psychological push and pull etched themselves into my body until I could not just expect them, but prepare myself to continue going when the stories get dark and the painting picture is smeared with sloppy strokes.
Down the street I take careful steps, assessing the accumulated stresses of all the days prior in my feet, upon damaged heels as if they took the pounding of an anvil, frozen rubber bands where quads should be, calves in a tug of war struggle between knees and achilles. A slow warmth builds in the body and tightness gives way to a more gentle grip upon the legs, letting the mind free to wander without restriction all the same.
Flashes of the neighborhood come and go as the snippets of knowledge I have regarding each house and it’s quirky inhabitants roll through my head like a stop action film. The all weather porch smokers, watching me run by in a shared confusion. Autistic boy walks to the edge of his sidewalk then turns and sprints back to the front door, over and over again. Family of hispanic day laborers inhaling calm within the cavernous belly of their family van turned work vehicle. Old angry dog chasing me parallel down the fence to retain some sense of youthful purpose. No individual moment grabs hold and draws out a story as my mind wakes up with the body.
Into the first mile the body finally opens fully and settles into the groove well worn into this recording, the grooves of a record spinning into each other but never finding the center. Equally I find thoughts awakening to themselves, rolling through tasks to come later in the day, finding a certain hope and positivity to make the most of the hours post-run. The body remains reserved, an instinctual safety mechanism to allow for the needed fuel and muscular tension that will be drawn up from deep down in the well later into the miles, and similarly the mind does the same, keeping the intensity of stories quiet, the emotional explosions capped as if building pressure to convert into physical energy.
At some point then, a shift takes place. A physical and psychological sweet spot that is the body and mind finally waking, as if a drug induced stimulation has taken hold and a capability beyond actual capacity takes over, which might actually be what happens as the morning coffee spreads throughout the bloodstream. With no discernable effort the still air begins to blow gently across the body, the sidewalk breaks are leapt over in larger swaths, and the body is suddenly gliding with a form and power unintentional. Equally the mind has opened, consciousness rising as a sun pouring itself over the horizon, illuminating the entire landscape so that all reality is visible and clearly present. It is here where running creates a moment for me that is hard to convey, except to state plainly that at this moment I feel most alive, most open, as if emotions are physical and my chest has been split wide open to let the warmth bathe them, to invigorate their molecular energy so that they jitter and bounce against each other in an unbridled excitement. The emotional veils, the philosophical confusions that cloud our thoughts, the heaviness of obligations all lift to reveal the most perfect moment. This fleeting moment, give it 400 meters, is when, above all, I love the most. Nothing touches me. I open up. And the love I have for my son, for Laura, for the gratitude of still being here, for the simple but fulfilling life I have struggled to build is simultaneously poured into and out of me.
Then it fades, like a downhill momentum gently leveling out onto flatland before beginning the slow push back up. If I’m lucky, I’ll push that moment into half a mile, but such a special confluence of rivers, physical and psychological, can only last so long as they dilute each other into the slowing ocean they must become. It is here that longer stories must take over, a concerted attempt to pass the continuous miles stretching out ahead. Depending upon the day the stories are often daydreams, of races won or running battles that turn impossibly epic. This space is for the safety of absurd narratives where ego and arrogance are allowed space, to enter and pass through like trains to tunnels. There is no harm in playing out these fantasies, if only to get transcend the slow burn of increasing muscular tension and heart rates that beat out punk songs fractions of a second out of rhythm to the soft rock that eased us this far. The miles that follow entertain the ends of marathons never run, in triumphant comebacks, of overcoming dying runners too ambitious or naive to have mastered the distance, both allowing an inspirational feedback loop that runs through legs to lungs to mind to legs and back again while also distracting from the ground covered.
Until, without warning, another change takes place and the stories of victory have shifted, and endings turn ugly. Trying to grab onto daydreams of my son, anticipating our summer time together, get derailed into thoughts of “her” and the accumulated dead weight of insults and indignities heaped upon my best intentions. Or worst case scenarios take over, a problematic survival mechanism I can’t seem to shake from my psyche, preparing me for a life after sudden deaths, impossible tragedies, or more realistic sufferings like expected cancer surgeries or metastasizing. An equal effort to keep my legs turning over at the rhythm my lungs allow meets the mental effort of not succumbing to real life frustrations or emotional states that push the body to resignation, to submission, to just plain giving up.
The mind and body are inseparable. Despite the potential to take consciousness where we imagine, unhindered by the very real molecular walls of the world, it can’t escape the interplay with a body breaking down. One follows the other as boxers suspiciously circling each other in a ring, adjusting their moves in anticipation of the opponent.
It is here where not just victories are made, where better runners separate from the weaker, but where effective runs become transcendent runs. It is here, past the depleted body and the darkened mind, where mentally trained and experienced runners find new wells of energy from which to draw and new canvases from which to paint narratives seemingly forgotten. In the last couple miles of red-lined effort a runner seeking distinct progression must be able to find clarity, to pull out of blurred borders and find a mental focus that will bring them to their self-defined finish, against a body now emptied and a mind equally blank. Most often, my narratives become reality, which is to enter a meditative state where my focus is only upon the field of vision directly in front of me. All environmental distractions, cars, voices yelling out, the white noise of urbanity, simply become sidewalls, as borders to a path straight ahead. The mind absorbs these influences, but can grab nothing to formulate an imagined story except the one word poem repeated with each foot fall.
Positivity and negativity, imagined creations forced from the necessity to endure through the miles, have run their course, quite literally, and one is left with simply the clarity to maintain, to not expend effort creating victory nor to crumble beneath the weight of any self-doubting thought. All is left is a certain broken body and broken mind, untouchable by the world, only seeking to complete the physical act the runner seems to have been developed to do, and nothing else. When the last step is made and the effort weighted breath finally expended, a runner is a purified vessel, emptied and open mouthed, unwittingly reaching a conclusion they didn’t know they were seeking. Filled with so much imagination and potential, but also so much accumulated theory and baggage, it is the final emptiness that is so cleansing. It is then we can truly rest, both body and mind.