Running Towards Nothing

Last weekend Laura asked me, “So, how are you doing without competitive running?”

Almost cutting off her last word I responded, “Good.”

And I am. Sure, if I’m surrounded by runners talking about workouts or watching an event on TV, I can get a bit longing for 800 repeats and progression runs, maybe even momentarily imagining a resurgence of dedicated training…just to see what happens. Of course, reality comes crashing in and the physical strains of my job, restrictive obligations outside of work, and the compromised ability to reach my potential wakes me from those daydreams abruptly.

That’s ok. I’m content with my running now…mostly.

Admittedly, I’ve been struggling the past four or five months, and it’s less a struggle with my running than it is something of an existential crisis and how that affects my motivations and behaviors to, well, everything.

Ever since my doctor gave me the illusory all clear, or maybe more fittingly, “go ahead” (I’m not MEDICALLY all clear…just enough to pretend I am until we discover growth with my cancer) I’ve struggled to find a purpose, but not just the abstract idea of a purpose, but a continuous, fulfilling, reliable purpose. Or reward. Or goal. Take your pick.

With the “go ahead” (and live your life as if you don’t have cancer…right) I found myself staring at a new start of sorts, in part because everything I had before cancer, that gave me this sense of daily purpose, was irreparably harmed. Namely, my running. I know I can’t rebuild my training anymore, especially with a job that leaves me more sore than a string of 10 milers, so that sense of purpose has been stripped away.

Running, for me, was a multi-faceted fulfillment. I genuinely enjoy doing it, so every time I was out the door for a run, I knew in some way I would start with a purpose to create an immediately satisfying reward and come back with a sense of accomplishment and calm. I would have completed a moment that was initiated by an initial purpose. But it wasn’t always fun. Sometimes the miles compounded upon miles. The workouts piled on top of each other. And the general creative energy that is necessary to continue on would be like a drained well, but, there was a greater purpose, a greater compulsion, that kept me going. If it wasn’t in the moment, it was that promise for the competitive moment months away, which compelled me to keep turning my legs over and over when my mind needed to rest. That interplay of immediate and long-term purpose and reward is unparalleled, and I think it’s something many of us seek to find in our lives.

I also think that purpose and reward is a direct expression of our evolutionary development, of our drive to survive through a sort of selfish benefit. The human animal has difficulty carrying out tasks of which it doesn’t gain direct benefit. We see this, probably most likely, in our work, which is interesting because our work is a benefit to the individual, but it’s a different sort of selfish benefit than what I’m referencing with running. In performing work for someone else, the labor itself is not often beneficial to the individual, but they still do it, because the labor generates the reward of a paycheck (our survival in a capitalist economy). But the labor itself, well, is not always so rewarding. It is a necessity to our psychological stability that we find value in the labor, selfishly, in some way, if we are to continue on doing this long term. Even with the paycheck as a sort of carrot and stick reward, the labor itself is more valuable to the individual than the reward. We can see this in the flood of individuals trying to make careers out of their physical activities and lives in general via social media platforms. As much as these people and the selling of their narcissism make me cringe, I also understand they are playing out this dynamic of sustaining themselves through a very personal reward, in both economy and selfishness.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of having this interplay between purpose and reward in something of pre-industrial, survivalist terms, of the CONFINED and DIRECT value to our labor (“labor” used loosely to mean most anything physical) existing for the majority of our time as developed primates. This is how we have most often lived, directly, for our own survival. Not through some sort of mediated, abstract labor that afforded us the privileges of survival based on someone else’s dictates, but rather a very direct existence. The purpose was / is to survive and the labor directly achieved that, whether it was securing shelter, forming social bonds, finding food, and so on. This dynamic is something many of us have trouble creating in the modern world of mediated relationships, labor for the objectives of others, and even physical activity for the sake of “exercise” and not purpose. Ask any individual who has spent time building…well…anything, with their own two hands, for their own needs, if there is a distinct difference in the value and reward and purpose of doing so against doing the same but then having their product or accomplishment serve the purposes of someone else in exchange for some other type of benefit (monetary, etc.). Ask them which experience feels more satisfying. The modern world of mediation has robbed us of a very primal connection to our lives, our survival, and our selfish enjoyment. The modern world has made finding purpose and reward tragically difficult. It is an insult to our autonomy.

All these considerations, however, haven’t erased my own existential crisis and the difficulty of finding a reliable sense of purpose and reward in the context of modern civilizations trajectory towards escalating chaos, exponential population growth and resource scarcity. (Stay with me, I’ll get back to running) I’m still struggling to regain a sense of grounding and purpose to my days, continuously feeling inspired to being one project or another and then discarding the attempt in frustration or a “what’s the point” moment of clarity. And that’s the question that really drives most all of us. WHAT’S THE POINT? For me, the mostly subconscious, evolutionary, biological recognition that SURVIVAL is the point poses the most difficulty, because in a social ecology where the individual has very little agency regarding issues that have now grown and become institutionalized and global, what’s the point of striving to create a more stable and cooperative social ecology when you recognize that the dominant forces have set in motion environmental mayhem.

This is not hyperbole.

I hate resigning myself to being a collapsist, but when you are more than anything else, a realist, how do you deny our trajectory towards collapse and the brutality that comes in moments of sudden social vacuums? History proves our rightful fear. And should this crisis drag on longer into the future, I fear the same difficulty my son or his children will have to face going forward. If this seems weighty and horrible and “why would you ever want to think about this stuff”…well, I wish I could stop.

This is my problem, that the distraction I once had from singularly focusing on competitive running is gone and has now opened me up to all the deeper considerations of how best to live in the face of crisis, and how to find appropriate purpose and reward in the face of such an ugly future. Evolutionary behavior has dictated that I have no option but to find purpose and direct reward in my daily life, and as long as a physical body is in motion, it will instinctually find that reward in even the smallest forms possible to keep moving forward.

Today I ran four miles and it felt fucking great. This was after four miles yesterday that also felt fucking great. Admittedly, my running lately has been dictated morning by morning, literally. I wake up, think I want to run, and go do it. Or I wake up, realize i don’t feel like running, and don’t do it (and then psychologically kick myself for not running the rest of the day). It’s weird to transition from running SO MUCH every day, without an end in sight, as if stopping running would mean stopping breathing, to then just not even worrying about it. It leaves one feeling disconnected, aimless, without purpose. But it feels like I’m getting ground under my feet again, not at all via my considerations about how best to live in the awareness of a building social chaos, but at the very least through the direct reward of running.

I know that for no matter how short I go out, I will play out the necessary physical release that has comprised our existence since before we could record it. I will, in some way, use my physical body as a survival mechanism, to remain strong and engaged, and maintain my ability to do physical work and provide for myself (and laura and august and the cats) as is physically necessary. I won’t be heading out to gather food (run commuting to the grocery story just wasn’t practical) or scout for enemies (not today anyways) or communicate with distant people…but the purpose of the run may not be as important as the reward of the run itself at this point. Right now, four miles run is just four miles run, because it feels good, it wakes me up, it affords me the privilege to watch a golden sun break the horizon and cast my shadow behind me, it surfaces deep thoughts and positive emotions weighted beneath the fatigue of a previous days stresses, and it reaffirms the conscious experience of just being alive and able.

None of this, mind you, eases my discontent with reading between the lines of our society’s messages, mapping the trajectory of a really ugly end coming our way (or our children’s way) in a handful of decades, and watching a populace dance and sing and cheer the spectacle while Rome burns around them, with only a handful of my friends gathering to express our sadness.

Yeah, this got dark. And I wish I could turn it off, I really do. But when the only thing that truly matters before your survival mechanisms fail is how you spend your days, figuring out the best way to spend those days, while ensuring the best possible conditions also exist for your children to spend their days, is definitely all that matters. So until…IF…we collectively see the trajectory of our civilization and start destroying the mechanisms of our subjugation and destruction of the land, there is no other recourse but to enjoy our days, simplistically, selfishly, and personally responsibly.

If for nothing else, there is still the unmediated, unweighted, directly rewarding act of running a few miles in the morning. It’s purpose may end when my legs stop moving, but that doesn’t take away from the moments of the act. Maybe there is a lesson in there for navigating this unprecedented tension in human history.

A Certain Victory

There is a certain victory in running. Though it’s not so much just in running as it is in being physically active, engaged, capable. For me, though, that victory shows itself specifically through running, and the opposition to those not. It’s not a position of compassion or empathy, but on the surface level, there is something very poignant and immediate about running down the street past nameless others, many in visible states of either physical or emotional struggle. In the area I live, it’s not always manifested as morbid obesity, as the usual narrative goes, but rather bodies frail and thin, bones visible and protruding from, most likely, a drug-induced distraction from eating. The sadness and dejection on their faces conveys the same struggles of their decaying bodies.

There is a personal victory in juxtaposition, of being able to run by these individuals with self-created capability. And yet, it’s not as basic as “putting in the work” versus a life that didn’t involve physical struggle, but instead the emotional foundation that leads one to see value in creating a life worth living. Before any physical degeneration takes place, an emotional one usually precedes.

For me, then, the victory is not just in the physical act of running, of being capable despite the odds, but that all the experiences I created for myself leading up to this moment in my life enables that physical capability. Running is just the physical manifestation, the physical expression of my internal emotional state, and my internal emotional state has been crafted through a lifetime of reasoning, consideration, and education. There is a victory in that.

I often weighed the values of the cerebral pursuits against the values of the physical pursuits, as if they were two separate entities able to coincide without ever crossing paths. One could, theoretically, engage fully in an educational or philosophical practice at the neglect of the body and reach a peak quality of life. Similarly, one could devote themselves to a practice of honing their complete physical selves, while paying no attention to intellectual considerations, and equally thrive. As my life circumstances tended to shift between these two seemingly separated dynamics, I definitely reaped the benefits of concentrating on one or the other, but as the excesses of each fell away, the interplay between the two became wholly apparent.

Specifically, when cancer came crashing in, the strengths of both were challenged beyond anything I had encountered prior. When I found myself facing down mortality in a truly immediate sense, the fear that seems to consume most wasn’t present, stifled by the reasoning and perspective I had developed over years and years of reading about evolution, religion, lives of quality, and the subsequent confidence that develops through an understanding of our world of complexity. The intellectual work I had put in faced what some would see as the ultimate test, but that confidence allowed me to absorb the experience and move through it with relative ease. There was, then, the physical obstacles of a body wasting away through disease and treatment, yet, the patterns of physical work and routine I had established leading into the surgeries enabled me to reverse the degeneration, get stronger and stronger, build back the lost capability, and enact the lessons of physical resiliency I had learned along all those countless miles.

The value of those coupled dynamics, however, is not simply in moving through this experience of cancer with perspective and relative ease, but rather in moving through life itself with perspective and quality. There is a certain victory in knowing that with or without the test of threatened mortality, the quality of a complete life, developed through both the intellectual and physical pursuits is experienced on a daily basis, against the constant reminders by the nameless others who visibly suffer in physical degeneration and, likely, emotional desperation. Or those physically destroyed individuals laughing away their abbreviated lives, alongside the physically primed, but internally depressed beings lost to the difficulty of our confusing civilized complexities.

There is a certain victory in, not necessarily “health”, but capability, of having the ability to navigate the physical stresses of our world, and being able to do so through the emotional and intellectual stability that allows us to persevere and find value and comfort in so much difficulty that is not of our own making. The greatest victory, however, is knowing the interplay between the two create a unique peak of quality that can’t be met through either alone. There is a specific value that can hardly be described, but really only experienced, when the psychological and physical mechanisms are working in concert, unseparated, as one. Others find that interplay by their own interests, but I’ve always experienced it through the act of running.

That is a victory, daily, that transcends all the absurdities of our lives. No matter how impossibly we struggle against economic schemes, structures of domination, the complexities of civilization….the discovery of a self-created, repeatable act of physical and intellectual interplay is our greatest victory over all the excessive, daily facades.

ReRouted AKA Not Dead Yet version 4.0

Everything was going great, the type of run we seek, when the body feels smooth, the legs strong, lungs relaxed, and you can just tell your form is fluid and powerful. I turned my legs with a perfect rhythm, flicking past each other in a way trained over years of countless miles, moving in memory of what seems has always been their only purpose. Everything was going great, aided by a drop in humidity that brought an ease of effort I hadn’t felt in quite some time, so long in fact that I started to doubt it ever existed, or that maybe, tragically and finally, it was long lost to the degenerations of age. But it wasn’t. Everything was going great, as it once always had, a road of expectations laid out before me. And then I heard the train whistle.

It was close, but the tracks were in sight, and there was a chance it wasn’t THAT close. I hesitated, debating the playful excitement in racing to the tracks to see if I could beat the train. I thought about my old teammates and knew, without a doubt, we would race towards the train to see if we could beat it to the crossing and stay on course, more out of the challenge and danger than the need to keep on track. I debated doing the same, giving the now idling cars a bit of excitement for their mourning commute…but didn’t.

I saw the train coming and could tell that if I did make it, it would be close. Real close. Too close. And I turned 40 today, so maybe, just maybe, if this wasn’t a conscious act of maturity and compromise and settling, then maybe it’s the more inherent, unavoidable outcome of the process. If you don’t mind, I’d like to believe I realized I couldn’t make it in time and resigned myself to backing off out of survival and not age.

I waited at the crossing for a couple seconds, bouncing in place, when I counted three engines roll by and looked down the track to see an endless line of cars turning around the bend. Rerouted.

Not wanting to lose the fluidity and strength I was feeling to this point, I instantly turned and ran a new direction along the train cars rolling past me, the string of idling commuters deciding to do the same (weird, I guess they WANT to make it to work). Normally, I would feel a sense of tension and discomfort with a route change, now unable to determine just how off my mileage I would be for the day. I could estimate, sure, but the Type A dictate in me would be eaten up by the lack of PRECISION. What if I only ran 7.84 miles instead of a complete 8 miles?! This might ruin my entire path of progress I’ve worked for years to build! At least, that’s sort of what goes through my head. This time though, without consistency, without a defined goal, without the need for progression, I just went with it. And it was real, real nice. In fact, everything was right back to great again. I ran down a stretch of road that, I quickly realized, I hadn’t run since just before I was diagnosed when I pulled a really strategic move, my favorite to date, during a small 5 mile race and left my competitor desperately seeking more oxygen as he dropped further and further off my back, securing me a solid second place just a few seconds behind the winner. It felt great to put myself back into that space, partially physically and partially mentally.

The stretch of road ended, however, and I needed to decide my next reroute, which I quickly sketched to a turnaround and back home. And isn’t that an apt analogy for my life now, being rerouted and having to adjust for some sense of security and expectation. Going for a run on your 40 birthday will do that to your thought process, make something like a simple change in course help you analyze your life trajectory.

That is precisely what happened to me just before diagnosis, when all the expectations I had for myself were suddenly met with a metaphorical train blocking my path, forcing me to reroute, well, everything. And it wasn’t just one train really. First there was the divorce train, then the unemployment train, then the financial train…and finally the cancer train. It was like a full train yard of endless cars passing in front of every goal I had set for myself down the road, leaving me no choice but to either lay down and wait for them to pass (whenever THAT would be) or to turn left and keep going.

I turned left, but to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out where this current road is going. For awhile, during treatment, it was like I was running around the same few blocks, seeing a lot of new stuff I hadn’t seen before, but really getting no closer to completion. Then after my oncologist told me to essentially live as if I didn’t have cancer, I might have found my way back to the route I was initially running before all the trains blocked my path. It even seemed like I might get to the end of my run, or at least remember where I was going, but to be honest, I’m not quite convinced of all that. I’m not convinced because right now I’m still running that route, but it’s not as easy as it once was, and I’m not even sure why I’m running it anymore. Maybe I’m not rerouted. Maybe I’m lost.

A friend of mine asked me at my birthday party, “So, what’s your ten year plan?” It was impossible to stifle a laugh.

This reroute became so long that although I found a part of the original course, I’m not entirely convinced it’s going where I want it to anymore. So a ten year plan? I’m not even sure I have a ten MONTH plan. I’m just trying to find my way back to objectives that are simple, sustainable, and enjoyable. Then again, maybe that has always been my ten year plan now that I think about it, to find that sense of a good, simple life, and hold onto it despite all the reroutes I encounter along the way.

But, of course, easier said than done. With all the necessary responsibilities of taking care of my son, financially, there are other obstacles I must overcome, that don’t necessarily lead to a simple life, and turning 40 maximizes the pressure of meeting those responsibilities exponentially. I can hear the unstated admonishments from here. “Shouldn’t you have figured this out by now?” “What have you been doing for the last 10 years?”

But all this flagellation makes me feel rather absurd, as if I’m succumbing to the cultural standards of turning 40 and wondering why I haven’t made anything of my life at this point, when up until now, I’ve always rejected the idea of what counts as “making something of your life”. I’m actually quite excited with what I’ve experienced and overcome and accomplished, while still knowing I’ve made mistakes, gone off route, or was forced to take a different course. I don’t actually FEEL 40….at least not in the ways our society pretends 40 year olds are supposed to feel.

I remember quite vividly when my dad was thrown a surprise 40th birthday, complete with gag gifts, black balloons, and weird “over the hill” cards. I might have been 12  at the time (I actually don’t remember), but now I can’t help but wonder how he actually felt. Did he feel old? Did he feel mature? Did he feel bored? Admittedly, having two daughters (before ME) must have taken it’s toll on him, so he could be excused for feeling old (yeah, I know you’re reading this dad).

But, holy crap, if anyone tried to throw me a party with black balloons and gag gifts…I don’t even know how I would take that. Actually, yes I do. I’d probably challenge everyone in attendance to a 5k race.

There is something else though, that is keeping this post from being a triumphant, call-to-arms, spit in the face of expectations of aging type of manifesto. Cancer rerouted me 3 1/2 years ago and although I’ve found my way down a different course, I know I’ll never shake the worry that I’ll be rerouted again, no matter how far I can see in the distance. Maybe this is what prevents any sense for a ten year plan. And lately, the worry of that reroute has come back in small, nagging, physical ways that I’m trying not to fret out of proportion. The hard nodule around my belly button is protruding, which was a primary point of concern the first time around. A sickness a few weeks ago lingered and lingered and lingered. My eyesight has been compromised from the sickness in the same way it does after my surgeries, blurring everything I try to read or focus on for more than a couple seconds. And an MRI scan is scheduled for September 1st.

These worries are expected, as any cancer patient will tell you. Nothing is minor or can be “waited out” after a diagnosis. So add all these little physical abnormalities, to a persistent diagnosis, coupled with a birthday that society marks as a point of degeneration, and the considerations become more difficult to rationalize. All that will be dealt with later, however, and yet this all continues to reiterate the rerouted course I’m continuously forced to navigate.

But that’s ok. We all get rerouted through life. We all have expectations that shift, change, or meet unavoidable obstacles not of our own making. What would our existence be if we found a path of least resistance, if we had nothing to overcome, a routine that never ended and became as predictable as the rising sun? That’s not a life I want to lead. The challenge, as always, is encountering obstacles in our course, and making the decision to either stand in place and wait it out or take a turn and see what’s down the road. Maybe, just maybe, there is a better course. Maybe there are new epiphanies, new relationships, new experiences…and maybe there are more obstacles, more hardships, more trains blocking your path. But, for me, at least I’ll find out.

I don’t know where this course is taking me yet, no matter how long I stay on the path, whether that is 30 years or 40 years or more, but I still don’t see the point in hitting a train and sitting down to wait it out. Hell, I haven’t even given up on racing it to the crossing.

Social Media Will Tear Us Apart

I stopped telling social media about my runs. I stopped cataloging every mile, detailing the weather, photographing my shoes or low angle action shots. I quit telling everyone about every workout I was completing, but not because I was consciously avoiding the narcissistic expressions social media enables, but rather because I just lost the compulsion to do so. I’m not entirely sure if there was a definitive breaking point, or knife edged thought change, but maybe more just a slow withering of desire to advertise myself. Maybe, that narcissistic dwindling was a product of the same dwindling in ability and drive to compete after my last surgery. I don’t know, but whatever happened, I just felt…too self conscious to advertise my running.

There were a couple moments that I mentioned my running, when I realized friends and connections were genuinely interested in my well-being, often marked by my ability to run and train, so I made a couple posts, but even those felt weird. And yeah, it’s weird I’m even writing about this, except that for so many years this was my main focus for social media. It’s primarily what I found myself expressing more than anything else, more than veganism, more than politics, more than the absurd ideas and jokes that come to me on long, boring car trips. So, in a way, it’s telling that I even feel compelled to write about NOT writing about running.

I think, ultimately, I just felt over the self-absorbed expressions that related to what is just a hobby. Sure, a very rewarding, fulfilling, obsessive hobby, but still just a personal endeavor. Then there has been that shift to focus my efforts and privileges for the benefit of others over the past handful of years, which when you find yourself acting on others behalf, in much less fortunate circumstances than your own, all your individual hobbies seem selfish and inconsequential. It’s hard to spend time talking about your latest ten miler when you could be putting out ideas or sharing information that aids someone else. But, of course, the inherent compulsion of social media is about the individual, the ego, the self-advertisement.

Which brings me to the now, where my expressions are finding a more detailed release in this blog, as I’ve cut myself off from social media completely. No Facebook. No Instagram. Just like that. I wasn’t planning on cutting myself off, where I counted down the days to a defined separation, but rather…just stopped. Just like that. It was a handful of days ago on vacation, and I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to do it, but I did. I tried to delete my accounts, but they make it so hard that I put up some sort of temporary halting, even though I’ve deleted them in my mind.

Regardless, I think I cut myself off due to the self-inflicted annoyance of my narcissistic tendencies coupled with “the crush of humanity” to use a phrase I’ve lifted from elsewhere. And since then, despite the blink of an eye time I’ve been away, it has really been a unique experience. In the past I’ve stepped away, but more just from Facebook, rationalizing some lessened negative aspect of Instagram. This time, however, I’ve cut off both, and it’s made all the difference.

I told myself I was going to devote all the appropriate time I could to my son while he was with me this month, and maybe the break was an extension of that idea, but doing it was something else. When I did, however, the effect was immediate. I found myself continuously engaged with both him and Laura, not just when we were around each other, but when I was off by myself as well. I found that my thought patterns slowly drifted from sketching expressions designed for a wide audience on social media, to a more immediate consideration of their needs and our time together instead. When we are in each other’s company, my mind isn’t elsewhere. I’m not daydreaming or out of mental focus or lost in that realm of distraction and haze that it is so easy to slip into through social media or any non-present media. There was something very immediate and physical about our time together, and ultimately, very comfortable.

I’m not trying to romanticize this or present anything that most would respond with a resounding “duh” as magical, but it’s been so long that I’ve allowed my continuous daily moments to be as simplified as they were prior to social media that it’s a wonderful reminding of that reality, of that simplistic enjoyment of just being around those closest to me in my life, both mentally and physically. I lost the compulsion to grab my phone in lulls, to post a thought to a removed, unanswering audience, and to instead just be ok with the immediate.

Admittedly, it’s not without some degree of concern that I’ve just cut myself off from a degree of communication with a wider circle of friends, considering our world has very rapidly come to embrace the ease of this communication as default. I’m not trying to practice a deliberate neo-luddite ideology or anything, so it is with a little apprehension that I’ve cut myself off from people that I’ve shared a certain reliance upon and with over the years. I can’t help but wonder if this psychological relaxation I’m experiencing is preceding a painful shooting in the foot. Right now though, it seems worth it.

On the other hand, the change of pace I’ve established in my running practice, which I wrote about recently has also fostered a change in identity of sorts. If not a change in identity, then at least a change in expression of identity. If social media is about any unspoken or unrecognized intent, it’s the continuous expression of our personal identities, our associations, our moral parameters. Some of them based in reality and some of them what we wish to be true. One of my greatest fears in quitting running in the past was the shift in identity. When you’ve spent so many years dedicated to one act, day in and day out, the fear is not in stopping this act, but rather how you perceive yourself once you stop doing what you DO. When you no longer do the thing you do, who are you as a person?

This is the dilemma so many face when they find they can’t physically do what they love, suddenly, whether that comes from disease, physical impairment, or any unforeseen change of life circumstance. It’s not the reality of impairment as it is the mental difficulty in changing and adapting to a new reality. I see this often in members of the military, old and way beyond their military engagement, but expressing their rank with such great vehemence. Or the cancer patient, who found themselves identifying as a fighter and survivor, only to be diagnosed as cured and now fighting to retain their recent identity that has been abruptly taken away. I’ve seen so many competitive runners struggle with the same difficulty, recognizing their diminished physical abilities and fighting so hard to remain the runner they’ve always been. They simply don’t know what else to be if they don’t have running.

For me, to abandon social media is to, in a way, abandon my identity as a competitive runner. Or, to have reconciled myself as no longer a competitive runner, but just a runner, the desire to express that identity has quickly waned. But, as I was mentioning before, there is a certain absurdity in the professed importance of our identities, of our narcissistic expressions towards others, of our self-absorbed involvement with social media while others are forced to navigate the world with so much less, or struggles of so much greater importance. Ultimately, that 10 miler we did today…who cares? And I don’t say that as a critique of other’s expressions on social media…really just my own, because I’m fully aware that my narcissism runs rampant (he says on his blog) and I’ve spent years talking about every little thing I’ve done with running.

And maybe I burned myself out with my own ramblings, but it feels so nice to shut the hell up about my running, my narcissism, my self-absorption, and to escape the “crush of humanity” we’ve found ourselves in, and to instead just enjoy the quiet, the minimal slow of information, but most importantly, the time spent with those around me, both mentally and physically.

I still have my amorphous identity, my considerations and thoughts, my act of running, but not just a little less complicated, a little less loud, and a lot more immediate and personal. Now, excuse me, I’m going to spend some more time with Laura, in that sort of immediate, rewarding, present way we all used to spend time with each other before social media.

Disconnect

I know the score when it comes to our relations with animals, so I know how to disconnect from the violence inflicted upon them by our culture. I’ve lived through years and years of the subtle, constant barrage of violence that surrounds us, that is built upon their lives, that is hidden from our awareness. And although it seems one would only become more adept and more accustomed to living through this awareness of violence as they age, I find myself becoming only more affected, more empathic, and more troubled by this reality of ceaseless suffering and outright denial of their value as individuals. It is one thing to confine, inflict pain upon and end the life of a creature one acknowledges of physical and emotional capability, but it is, oddly, something else entirely to do the same without recognition of these same capabilities and without the slightest semblance of thought as to one’s actions. For those of us who have allowed ourselves to become aware of an animal’s value as individuals and communities and nations, our aging, accumulated experience, and necessity to maneuver through the violence of an unthinking culture is no protection from the emotional difficulty of doing so.

On our drive out East I felt bombarded by the consistency of this suffering, as if the long protracted, but often hidden, violence of our civilization seeped through the cracks of the facade and the violence came spilling out. We passed a semi truck loaded with cages of chickens crammed into temporary caskets on their way to slaughter, many of them dead after a life of confined misery. One chicken has pushed his head through a gap in the cage wire, as if to seek a little extra space, but the head lay limp, it’s eyes closed, dead from either exhaustion, dehydration, or suffocation. The fate of which may have been better than where they were headed. Seeing these countless individuals, a visual mass of feathers and beaks and feces, I couldn’t help but think of the individual chickens being cared for on a farm by friends, all with distinct personalities, survival needs, and emotional capabilities, but when these lives are confined by the system of animal agriculture, they are reduced to commodities, brainless and emotionless resources, facts and figures on spreadsheets. The connection between animals as resources leads to the disconnect that is a mass of bodies piled on top of each other in a truck speeding down the highway, in full view for all to see.

We passed the truck, after I warned Laura to turn her head and not look out her window. But just a few miles up the road I caught another animal standing on the side of the road, a raccoon I believe, but then stumbling and falling. It’s movements relayed a crisis as it tried to stand immediately again, onto to stumble sideways, disoriented, and fall on it’s side yet again, this time unlikely to get up for a third attempt at escape. It was likely hit by a car, but not immediately fatal, and would die a prolonged death. There was something powerful about seeing the process of dying more immediately that struck me, and stayed with me.

It was both the chicken, with it’s head hanging limp, eyes closed in either avoidance of it’s fate or already lost to the grip, along with the raccoon, in the last moments of it’s life, that cut through the years of protective callous and rational awareness that helps us all through the days. I couldn’t seem to shake the moments of suffering or the tragic, uncomfortable business as usual normalcy that allows follows these events. And I still can’t.

But not because I’ve lost touch with reality. Not because I’ve become an over-emotional bleeding heart stereotype of an animal rights activist. Not because I seek some deeper tragedy with which to connect and gain sympathy from others for my own connection to the suffering. Not any of that, but just the continuous reality that it’s all too much. That it’s always too much, that it’s all so out of control.

Add to these moments the latest publicized shootings of black men around the country and the expected retaliation against the police that are shooting them, coupled with the surge in violence influenced by religious ideology and theistic absurdity on such a spectacular scale, multiplied by a trajectory of environmental crisis with no seemingly stable endpoint…and as someone recently said to me, “civilization is just a continuous and protracted act of violence.”

Mind you, I have been aware of this reality for quite some time, but I continuously find myself affected by the tragedy of our desire to continue down this path, unable to see the big picture through the barrage of details and distractions. I find myself unable to shrug away the violence and yet, at the same time, crippled to do anything about it. I find myself asking less, “Is it too big? Is it too much?” and instead making declarative statements. “It’s all too big. It’s all too much.”

And that is my greatest fear, of succumbing to the reality of this protracted violence that inflicts unimaginable pain upon the animal nations without even recognizing their ability to experience pain, let alone their existence as individuals, along with the culture of unthinking stupidity that leads people to monotheism, to human centric ideology, to know nothing of physical history, to know nothing of nature’s diversity, to know nothing of alternative ways of living, to know nothing of the environments and relationships that foster a happiness dictated by the slow machinations of evolution’s continued attempts toward survival. I don’t know how to balance the desire for the best life to possibly live in a state of isolation, of relationships mediated by digital connections, of not interacting with the world in a way to affect positive change when our trajectory seems nothing but negative.

And believe me, this isn’t doomsaying and the product of not looking for the light in all the dark. I make the most of my life, and continue to consider how best to live, making adjustments accordingly, experimenting with alternatives to see what solutions arise, but it’s hard to let go, to disconnect, to to navigate a world of mindless, purposeless violence when you know the alternatives exist. It’s so hard to create a personal sanctuary when the walls are burning on the outside. Sometimes, in the midst of so much immediate violence, it seems I’m just trying to wipe clean my window on the train as it speeds uncontrollably towards the cliff.

And yet, what else can we do? It is the impulse of our civilization that says we must always seek a place higher on the pyramid. We must always look for the next level, to find our way to more money, to seek greater power, to affect as many people as possible, to become the leaders of leaders, to gain the most followers, to alway develop more and more, to become bigger and bigger, to maximize everything. But when was this ever the dictate of the natural world? In the relatively beginning-less nature of existence, when did anything ever seek perpetual domination, perpetual growth without checks and balances?

There is, however, another way, but which takes a certain degree of perspective and confidence to live outside the insane logic of civilization. It is the logic of civilization to consolidate power and decision making and resources and to always hoard and become bigger and seek power and domination, of which we all seem to be sucked into the vortex of this logic, born into the insanity and with few alternatives. But the answer might be quite simple.

To disconnect.

T0 minimize our lives to the physical world around us, to prioritize immediate experiences and direct social relationships instead of mediated communications (he says on a blog). To know what it is to be a part of land, even if that is just our yard or an area to which we feel connected close by. To become attuned to our bodies and their fluctuating states of comfort. To learn at least one skill with our hands, to experience what it is to create and imagine from seemingly nothing. To know what it is to value our objects and seek a sense of permanence within them rather than live with the idea of constant renewal and waste.

To, again, disconnect from the logic of civilization that surrounds us, that we know deeply and intuitively is tragic and violent and disconnects us from the lives we would rather live. To use the masters tools to dismantle the masters house, we can disconnect from their disconnection. That is where we must start, individually, and together.

I’ll resist the urge to offer suggestions of disconnection more than I have already alluded, as they will be many and personal and it is only confining to offer “acceptable” forms of disconnection, but suffice to say they are all around us.

I will not, however, romanticize this disconnection either, because we’ll still drive past trucks loaded with the misery of animals confined by the logic of civilization, we’ll still watch the life of our fellow animals fade in the tragedy of our pace of life, we’ll still witness the unthinking production and consumption of animals as resources, and we’ll have to endure through it all. We can’t escape this logic until this logic buckles under the weight of it’s own absurdities and fails to uphold it’s moral boasting with foundations predicated on theological wishes and illusions.

We can, however, individually disconnect from this absurdity, from this pace of life, from this trajectory of violence…and find comfort in the value of our own physical realities, in our connections to the natural world, in our connection to the physical world, and in our connection to the ceaseless wonder of time, existence, and consciousness. It can be painful at times to remain connected to our world, emotionally and intellectually, but the converse joy is just as powerful and important.

A Change of Pace

I haven’t been this excited to go on a run in a long time. I can’t remember how long it’s been actually, so, it’s been THAT long.

Since my last surgery I’ve struggled to find my running rhythm, to find an ease and drive to keep putting in the work, day after day, week after week. Ultimately, it came to a head on a hot, humid morning when the accumulated fatigue finally wore me down and I couldn’t bring myself to start the workout…or even complete the mileage. I wondered to myself, “Isn’t it better to burn out than fade away?”.

But I wasn’t sure which part of that mantra I was playing out. Did I burn out? Each morning brought a sense of obligation to run, without an obvious, premeditated goal in which to strive towards. Each morning I made it into the run, but wasn’t convinced of the success when I finished, my legs weighted with effort and my lungs struggling to remain calm. It refused to get easier. I just couldn’t find the will to push harder to make the next effort easier in comparison. I might have blown up. I might have burnt out.

Or was this fading away? Despite the personal competitive success I managed before my last surgery, I couldn’t bring myself to find that same purpose, pushing against the new schedule of training before work and the mental tension that shortened window of run time brought upon me. I could no longer figure out what I was running for, who I was running for, and what the importance of it all was. Like a fire slowly losing oxygen, seemingly quite literally within myself, the flame was dying down. Was this fading away?

And yet, as much as I try to imagine a new daily schedule, filling the gap where running once lay…I can’t. I can’t imagine giving away the ability to spend hours in the woods of Southern Indiana, running with friends when called upon, or just finding the necessity of a cathartic release through physical exhaustion when nothing else is working. While at the same time, I can no longer dedicate myself to expending every last bit of creative energy during my morning runs. I just can’t compete anymore. Every attempt to this period involved not just running, but progressing, and training to progress. It was always about seeking out previous boundaries and surpassing them, but of course, the problem is that each boundary was found through intense training and so to surpass previous boundaries meant more intense training. 80 mile weeks to 90 mile weeks. 90 mile weeks to 100 mile weeks. 100 mile weeks to 120 mile weeks. There is, really, no where else for me to go. The effort to sustain such a training load is now both physically and psychologically out of my reach, or at least, in motivation anyways. Not only does that type of training seem within the realm of only a past physical self, it’s not even there mentally. It doesn’t even sound fun.

That hot and humid day, I just broke. I stopped running. I didn’t even take a break in such a way that I was renewing myself for the next effort, I was just done, and I felt a sort of comfortable release in doing so, despite the lingering tension of “giving up” or “burning out”, even, “fading away” in the back of my mind. I was just done. Add to this break, my son was coming for the month of July for our scheduled parenting time, and I was that much more motivated to leave the creative energy expense of running behind to focus all my attention and efforts upon him, leaving me with essentially no regret.

And, it’s all ok.

I didn’t believe it would be ok. I really didn’t. I thought I would be eaten up by the frustration, the lack of creative expense, but I’m not. Because, ultimately, I just changed up the pace. I’m no longer running for the attempt to progress indefinitely, to push against that stubborn wall of ability, to find my boundaries. I found them. I found them through competition, through self-drive, through the limits of cancer, through the ravages of surgery. I found all those limits and I’m no longer driven to find them. I feel accomplished, but, again, It’s not like I can just up and quit.

But I can change pace.

Now, I’m finding a certain satisfaction in running by daily motivation, but taking each day as it comes, and not scheduling or obligating myself to any distance or effort. Some days, I wake up and realize spending time in my garden will be the most satisfying activity. Or reading through my latest book. Or working on my latest drawing. And other days, running takes precedence over everything, without worry, without expectation, but just the genuine motivation and enjoyment of feeling my body work, of being in the world, of firing all cylinders and losing the tension that has built within.

Like I said, I haven’t been this excited to run in a long, long time. I’m on the East Coast for family vacation and tomorrow morning the boardwalk will be waiting with the scores of other runners laboring under the suffocating humidity. The planks will soften my step and the ocean will wave out it’s cooling temptation so close by, but I’ll just keep running, because this is where my genuine excitement to run has never faded and where I wait to wake early and meet the sunrise on it’s furthest horizon. Here is where I seem to never burn out, never fade away. The routine and scenery never seems to change here, yet in a way, I’m starting something new with my running, and the change of pace may take some time to be more literal, but the mentality behind it will be undeniably new.

It’s been awhile, but I look forward to running, again, into this latest life transition.

Seeking Exhaustion. Finding Fulfillment.

I needed to go south. Where the corn fields that allow the wind to move unfettered give way to the land piled up on itself by a halted glacier. In these hills it is harder to farm, harder to develop and so we are afforded a more free, more wild terrain, where animals have habitat and the diversity of life can explode. I needed to be within all that. It had been too long, for either Laura or I to remember last when.

And the moment I stepped off the parking lot asphalt and into the concealed entrance of green, it was like stepping through an invisible window, into an entirely different world where the temperature cools and the flora surrounds you, envelopes you, like a blanket of protection. In here is safety. In here is calm. In here is a different relationship. In here is where, even you, become different, away from the complexities of modern life, away from the low level stress and conflict of other humans, away from the insecurities and consciousness and intentions of the thousands of nameless beings we navigate around without reprieve. In here you are your physical self, moving through an environment with a certain grace and fluidity, part by your own volition and part by the flow of the trail. In here you are less you and more everything.

I needed to get away from myself, and everything else. I needed to just move, but I really needed feel the life of everything that exists and grows and dies with little intentional help, to give me that reaffirmation that everything goes on, that humans don’t control the world, that what we destroy is never completely dead.

I feel that when I move through the woods, not as an intruder or an alien, but as a seamless inhale and exhale of it’s breathing. I feel it as my feet hit the ground and send small clouds of dust into the air, the ground pushing back on my impact with a gentle, cradling support. I feel it in the undulating air that cools like an open window, like the wind of a coming storm, like a drink, then heats like the embrace of a parent to child, like a pile of clothes from the dryer, like your favorite sweater. I feel it in the deep scents of ground that has thawed and cooked in the space of light broken through the ceiling of outstretched green. It surrounds me in moments of movement, entering my nostrils in an accumulated musk of wet dirt, bark, dying leaves and a moist heat that alludes more to the process of growth than decomposition. It pulls me from my thoughts in carnival like bursts of flower scent, reminiscent of cotton candy and cooked sugar and a sweetness that surpasses romantic gestures of rose bouquets to express true love and need and want in it’s signaling to the forest, to follow the map it has drawn to itself. But I run through.

I follow the softened floor as it undulates through the terrain like a dropped ribbon, laying where gravity decides it must, coordinating with my legs to make the smallest of adjustments left and right, forward and forward and forward, to move atop the ribbon, to use the momentum of it’s curves, to keep seeking the solitary life of the forest in it’s moments of expressions. I seek it and feel it over the rocks that protrude from the ground, pushed upwards in the continued, slow exhale of the earth, bringing new terrain to the surface, as if to renew the tired, worn ground again. I feel it in the snaking roots exposed from the ravages of growing close to the surface where feet and hooves and bellies pass. I feel it in the danger of their grasp, threatening revenge to distracted eyes and tired legs.

I feel it in the sounds of fellow animals, responding to the fight or flight of my presence as I dart around turns and up and over rises. I hear it in their loud swimming under the blanket of leaves as squirrels sprint to the nearest tree. I hear it in the lightning fast streaks of brown and black that leave lines in the dust as chipmunks pass mere feet in front of me. I hear it in the torrential symphony of birdsong, when I allow my sense to spread out as far as it can, the ceiling of sound signaling to each other when not in the silence of alarm. I run beneath it all either undetected or unthreatening. I hear it in the crash of the woods, as deer that tower above me bound and disappear through a shield of green, almost before I can even turn my eyes in their direction to catch inspiration in their effortless flight. I feel it deeply, personally, when the buck that disappeared stands atop the hillside, looking down upon me, quizzically, but calmly, measuring my presence, and making no gesture to flee. He looks at me, his antlers displaying a dominance and strength that can only induce respect, and I look back, slowing my pace to connect as long as possible. I turn out of sight to begin the next climb, and when I turn back he has silently vanished into the protection of the forest, proving the presence here is intuitive to his nature, a contrast to mine as a sorry attempt.

I find it as I crest the hill and begin unwinding the ribbon down the opposite side, feeling the change in by the direction of the sun, the forest floor opened up and allowing the growth of entirely different plants. The trees space out further, bigger, blocking out the sun and breaking it into scattered spotlights with longer, supportive branches and higher reaching hands. Responding to the power of the light, the ground cover is thinner, but more efficient and the leaves grow larger. Even the air feels thinner. I feel it as my pace opens up with my lungs and my momentum is carried down the hillside, twisting on switchbacks and flooding with speed on quickened drops that demand an intense control and quick footed dancing over strewn out rocks that lie without rhythm. Terra two step I like to call it.

I find it again and again through this strengthened effort of running, invigorated by the relationships of the forest, and carried away by it’s inspiration, until I must turn around and find my way back, out of necessity rather than desire.

The effort in finding the life of the forest shows itself as the fatigue overcomes my body, demanding a new concentration that must turn inward. I am aware of the failing form of my body, the erratic rhythms of my breathing as they struggle to keep pace with the flow of the trail, the shifting weight from compromised muscles to those prepared to handle the increasing stress. I seek the self-actuated life of the forest, but equally the self-actuated fatigue and exhaustion only the trails can bring to my body. This is my other objective.

It is a unique fatigue, brought on by a certain momentum. At first this momentum follows behind the body in a wake of inspired and graceful effort, in running with the gravity of the trail and bounding up the hills in abandon, but as the stresses accumulate, the momentum begins to catch up from behind like a predator overcoming its prey. It runs close enough to never be dropped, until it begins to consume the body, entering completely before effort and momentum are one and the same. This momentum becomes the body until it seems to disappear into the struggle of the effort, of lungs grasping for air and muscles digging for strength. They work together as one, before the momentum finds it’s way through the body and begins to extend itself ahead of the effort, urging or daring me to catch up and grab onto a bit more of it’s assist if possible. But at some point, it’s out of reach, apart from the body now weakened beyond repair, and only a dangling hope, a tempting illusion to hold onto in the striving to finish out the distance intact.

In losing this momentum is where the exhaustion I seek finds me, as a growing desperation that fills the space where the energy once boiled, consuming the muscles and darkening the mind. It’s presence is subtle at first. An ungraceful dance through the rocks, a turn swung too wide, or a heel scuffed along the ground. And then another. And another. I told myself to listen to the warning signs, of the deception of momentum that came from the trail and not my body, as I rolled over the ribbon while hitting my heel on small rocks and imperceptible undulations. I told myself to run smart and lift my legs, but as I let my concentration wander away from my internal warning signs, the trail humbled me.

Humbled the shit out of me.

Humbled me to the ground. This is an exhaustion I try not to seek, but respect all the same. The weaving of roots lay strewn across the trail as I rolled with the momentum on a slight decline, my legs swinging out in front of me with a gentle braking form rather than the concerted push forward, and where my heel scuffed the roots before, the weakness brought my leg close enough to the ground that my toe slammed into a root, the momentum just far enough ahead that I couldn’t grab on to roll forward and my body lifted into the air before slamming into the ground without bracing. In the split moment I fell I registered the ground, peppered with scattered rocks, roots, and a sapling stump that lay directly in the path of my downward swinging face. My body tensed and I crashed into the dirt, forgiving, but barely. Instantly a shock surged through my body, radiating through my entire left side, though I felt it in all the direct points of contact. My knee split open on a rock. My hip bone bashed into a root. My shoulder, miraculously taking the brunt of my top heavy fall as my neck bent upward to avoid a solid hit of my temple into the sapling stump. I paused, leaned back and saw two dots of sweat from my shoulder resting gently on the stump, as if to say, so close. So close.

I took the humbling, stood up and started running down the trail….for two steps. As I realized the humbling was much greater than the adrenaline was trying to convey. My knee throbbed, my hip piercing in pain, and I reached to my knees to collect myself. But I didn’t dare brush the dirt from my body. Never brush the dirt and blood from your falls. It is penance for not paying attention. When I realized I could move, if only a bit, I took lesson in the survival mantra, “Stagnation is death. Always keep moving.” Trusting the adrenaline to take control of my body, in spite of the pain, until I could regain effort, I started run / limping down the trail, slower, gently. The blood pumped through, the trail relented, and I got back to the work of building the exhaustion past the humbling, with the deep physical understanding of just who is in charge, or at the very least, of who is NOT in charge.

The momentum lay much further ahead as I reestablished my relationship with the trail, trying to find the flow again, running away from the pain on the left side of my body until the processes of the effort were greater than the faults of the effort. I found the forest floor and it’s kind, cool air, offering an invigorating stretch of rejuvenation that wound over dry creek beds and past a personal spot for me, where, if I find myself facing mortality again, my ashes will be scattered. With a quick glance at that spot and and acknowledgement of my existence, I ran on, any further reflection on that reality now relegated to a further, distant future. I had a hill to climb. I had an exhaustion to find.

Further towards the depletion I ran, retracing steps in the opposite direction, as if on an entirely different trail, as an entirely different runner. I had lost control of my body, using the escaping momentum of the trail to pull me ahead, reserving any strength I had to focus on the humbling terrain and the necessity of effort needed to stay upright. The grace all but pulled from my body I could barely manage sharp turns, my lungs threatening to fold my body to the ground on the slightest inclines, my legs buckling with the pressures of holding my torso on the descents. The only relief coming with the rolling undulations that hung my limbs like a puppet, working in concert as nature and body, runner and trail no longer individual entities. The exhaustion had set in and I was brought towards completion under that mysterious force few of us can describe, but know distinctly, where we are not in control, but move forward no less, with speed, with control, with no will except the ability to see ahead, or see from above, as our bodies move without us.

Until we reach beyond the realms of possibility and the ground falls beneath us, or we find our way to the end, spent, exhausted, depleted…and fulfilled.

The gates of green that welcomed me in opened into a brutal, bright sun that exposed me completely, as if my skin was torn away. I emerged with the momentum of the trail, spit out into the world, a different person. Broken, but stronger. Depleted, but fulfilled. Bloodied, but intact. Exhausted, but enduring.

This is why I enter the trails, to seek a world that is as beautiful and bountiful and outside of myself as much as it is humbling, and threatening, and depleting. To find another me, an absence of me, to create something different, something greater, something that will always fail in words and can only be experienced in seeking and finding.