There is a certain luxury to running…just running. Without distinct goals. Without training plans. Without a race settled into the concrete somewhere far off, always getting closer, as a beacon on a peninsula, surrounded by waters acting as boundaries. The boundaries being the miles prescribed, the speeds at which are necessary for progression, the formulaic methods created over years of others experiences that you shall not break from, lest you sign this waiver of risk. Running for the sake of running is an act of complete dismissal, of throwing off the shackles of obligation, accountability and just plain common sense. It’s not always smart. Stressing the body with tension and ease like a string attached to a bouncing Yo-Yo can lead to complete failure. A snapping, of muscles if not mind. It’s not always effective either. To run against the best advice of coaches and the millions of feet that have tread this ground before you is not too dissimilar to just running off a cliff and hoping the wind is strong enough to keep you aloft. It’s not. You’ll fall. On the other hand, with a bit of luck and a lot of previous physiological adaptation, some pretty incredible magic can happen. Weeks of barely running can unwittingly turn into a 70 mile week stretch, that folds itself over into the next week, and where the slope was gradual, it now becomes slippery, until the angle tilts drastically into the shape of a cliff. And you go flying off, this time aloft.
Sometimes, this flying momentum, however, takes a bit of drudgery through the luxury. Sometimes, without the common sense to ease into the effort, steadily increasing stresses, forcing a sort of evolutionary adaptation hypersped to daily increments, but instead just going full force into a week of running, the body breaks down. Without a sneaky whispering to your body, like a kid behind you in class avoiding teacher detection, breathing out “We’re going to run a little further today, not a lot, just a bit. It won’t hurt,” you break. You run far and fast and it feels amazing, until the stresses of the effort rise above the adrenaline like cars passing in the night. Neither could tell the other was on the road. You lay on the couch, prop your legs up in great satisfaction, replaying the run in your mind, but when you get up to go about other business you find your legs have filled with a heavy, gelatinous fluid, threatening to harden into immobility. The true effect of what you just did to yourself makes itself apparent with no small touch of naive shame. “I should have known better.”
You do it again, of course, because with just enough muscular loosening the mind is willing to take the body out more than the body is convincing the mind to chill. You take legs beaten to a less optimal beginning state, a new weakness to start the run instead of ending it. You are not necessarily broken, but you are less strong. Still, you run, because the luxury of feeling the wind on your face, finding moments of fluid form, watching red-winged blackbirds take flight as you pass their batches of reeds instead of watching your watch tick over at mile markers, far outweighs the common sense speaking through a very pointed spot in your quad, and the heel speaking too loudly for library volume with every impact.
The next day you do it again, a body broken even further yet again, this time more because the pain in your heels prevents you from digging into the slippery slope now turned downward in a state of unavoidable gravity. Body be damned, we can keep going, if only for the sake of going, because the luxury to do so has risen in importance above doing so right.
And the next, with a bottom half now congealing into a thicker and thicker solution that requires considerable effort to warm up the muscles to an appropriately flexible state, as far as they will let you go without snapping. Legs swing past each other with abbreviated steps, morse code cut short, until the loosening allows for longer sentences written out upon the pavement. The pain, however, writes it’s own stories, cramming small angry words into a space defined by quads and calves, as if they would hurt less if they could only be scribbled off the page. But they can’t. The words typed into the body with every impact is a sharpened typewriter arm, hitting forcefully and focusedly.
The luxury is a powerful force, because at this point we run a very thin thread, threatening to snap at any moment, during or after any particular run. We run out of form, arms clasped into prayer hands, asking no one for the absurd will to leave our bodies intact, to make it back home one more time, to keep the luxury luxurious, if still so painful.
Here’s the ruse. The luxury to break is the luxury to keep running towards a new strength. The body heals itself and where it is wise to slowly build strength on a trajectory of pain-free running, to see the beacon in the distance and follow it’s light, the luxury to run the body into breaking will, if the thread stays intact just enough, then lead to a strength quickened by consistency. The tight rope walker sags in the middle of the wire, the weakest point, where the luxury of running takes us, threatening a full on plummet into the pit of not-running. If, however, we take another step and pass the weakest point, every step thereafter will lead to a new strength. We will have passed the breaking point, the point of breaking.
That breaking point is marked by an unmistakable pain in the quads, Marathon Pain. That pain is there at the start of the run, quieted towards the end of the run, though not silent, and most prominent for the hours that follow. As worrisome as this pointed, stabbing pain is to the runners moving on a commonsensical trajectory of great potential, it is a sort of beautiful pain for those of us with much greater luxury to go until we almost break. We go to the depths of our bodies and stand on the edge of that cliff, in the middle of that tightrope, hands in prayer formation, and if all goes well, if luxury hasn’t reached past it’s own boundaries, we find a strength in our legs that pulls us up short, turns us gradually along the edge and swings our momentum back to ground more solid, more responsive, more rewarding.
It is then that the potential tragedy of too much luxury turns into the powerful magic of running…just running. Of the body’s ability to recover, to grow stronger, to find new momentum and new boundaries. This luxury turns unbelievably luxurious.