Running Into Stillness – Human Parts

I ran to escape my problems. Then it became one.

Photo: The Good Brigade/Getty Images

Running-Into-Stillness-Human-Parts Running Into Stillness - Human Parts
Your body has stopped talking to you. For the whole summer, it hasn’t told you to sleep or eat or move or do anything at all. That has been your relationship with your body since you were young. You waited and it spoke to you, conveying information through pain and pleasure, reminding you to nourish it and keep your hinges loose. But then there was too much pain and too much information, and then nothing. You stay still for a long time.

You know that silence is dangerous. Sharks have to move forward to stay alive. You are not a shark, but you are another apex predator, which is a fact that feels less like a personal attribute and more like an unavoidable element of your species. It’s a burden to have the capacity for so much.

You start running because you aren’t good at much else. You aren’t naturally strong or coordinated or athletic in any way, but you are light and okay with things taking a long time.

You know that some people run so they can think, but you run so you can’t.

At first, you like the metaphor of running, the progress, one step at a time, always forward, except running as progress doesn’t really work because you always end up back at home. Nothing has changed. You joke about running away from your problems, but they don’t go anywhere and you don’t either. In that case, maybe the metaphor does work.

You know that some people run so they can think, but you run so you can’t. That part of the appeal is a given at first, your mind unable to move past the vinegary burn in your lungs, but then you get better and have to push yourself harder to achieve the same blankness.

You are weatherproof. In the dead heat of August in New Orleans, you peel sweat off your arms like you’re stripping off sleeves and take your shirt off on the porch, letting it thwack against the ground like a wet towel. You put on fleece like a suit of armor, your eyes peeking out between your hat and the high collar of your jacket, to protect yourself from the bare freeze of Boston in January. You move three times, learning the fine topography of each new city and the gradients of their sidewalks, letting the pack of dirt trails vibrate through your bones.

You keep a calendar of your runs, the miles ticking past, a new marker of time. Numbers have never been your thing but you get really good at working them out in your head. How many miles you run in a week, what splits you have to hit to break 90 in the half, how many seconds it should take you to hit a quarter-mile rep at 10K pace. You find security in quantifying your life. You say you’re going to run 200 miles in a month, and then you do. You say you’re going to run a marathon, and then you do. You say you’re going to do it faster, then faster, then faster still, and each time, you do.

Blood blisters form between your toes. If you peel them away immediately it’s mess, but if you wait, they dry into chalky sheets and peel away. When you go to the running store, you tell the sales associate that you get blisters between your toes like it’s an inevitability, but he says it’s not. He fits you for new shoes, cushioned and electric blue, but the blisters stay. They look like what you imagine the space between your heart and spine looks like, the sticky jelly middle between the part of you that feels and the part of you that stands.

When you see clots you think of your grandmother who almost died of one that broke off and traveled toward her lungs after her knee replacement. You were eight and your aunt took you to watch the Peachtree Road Race while your parents were at the hospital. You remember her swollen legs striped with iodine, her skin that tore like wet paper from blood thinners, and the runners, flushed and dripping, the hard muscles of the first waves, the shuffle of rubber on hot pavement. You know it’s better for the clots to stay on the outside.

Your feet become tough and weathered. When you get a pedicure before vacation, the technician says it’s clear that you’re an athlete and that you wear comfortable shoes. You ask her to let you keep your calluses but she snips the buttons of your toe pads with scissors. Your plated skin floats in the water like fallen petals.

You lose weight, and then your period. You don’t care. For the first time, you are of your body instead of just attached to it. Whatever that body looks like feels meaningless. A woman stops you in line for security at the airport to ask what to do to get legs like yours. You don’t tell anyone that story because it would seem like bragging, but it is what happened. Your college roommate says you look sick.

You run until your legs feel like rot. At the end of a long race, your muscles tell your kidneys that you’re dying, but you feel more alive than you ever thought you could, like you’ve looked directly at an eclipse, a sharper brightness.

On message boards where you look for race tips, you see people calling your highest mileage day the “church of the long run” and you think it’s probably offensive. But you run more than you’ve ever prayed, the exchange of energy between your body and the ground a richer tithe than anything you’ve ever had or given.

Your body starts talking to you again, demanding. It tells you to eat pasta and puts you to bed early. It begs you to stand, to stretch, to take it on the road again, like a sentient sports car. You put your brain in your legs and let them lead you as far as they want to go, until you break one — a fracture in your tibia.

You started running so you could listen to your body but instead, you’ve made it scream.

Your orthopedist is 35 years old, with all his hair and high cheekbones. You’re cagey about your symptoms because you find pain embarrassing. You hop on one leg for him and round your spine to show him its curves. It takes four weeks for him to figure out what’s wrong with you.

You knew there were other options to void yourself. You’ve smelled them up close on the breath of your parents. You know this is better but it’s still breaking you, leaching calcium from your bones. It feels impossible to eat or rest enough to heal yourself, impossible to move enough to exhaust the quakes in your soul. If your energy isn’t organized, the chaos is paralyzing.

You started running so you could listen your body but instead you’ve made it scream.

Running is a drug. You are building a tolerance.

You make puns about chasing a high.

They aren’t funny.

You’re not disciplined; you’re scared. You run because being alone feels easier than eye contact with a shiny stranger, because logging miles lets you tell yourself you’re working toward a new dream, and that maybe that first dream isn’t a thing you even want anymore.

But you do want it. You want to construct instead of trace, to use your hands and your ears and your eyes to build something beautiful, to let yourself grow soft and grassy and open. It takes you another two years and thousands of miles for you to wake up on a Saturday morning and stay barefoot and still.

To begin.

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