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Where the Streets Have No Name

People ask me why I like to run. Why would any human being, unless being chased by a chainsaw-wielding assailant, voluntarily set out to run a mile. Or two? Five? Ten? You’re crazy.

I could talk about the health benefits, that our bodies were designed by the evolutionary pressures caused by the centrality of distance running to stalking prey in the Serengeti, that it wakes you up in the morning and helps you sleep at night.

But all of these are besides the point, and make me sound like it’s some altruistic thing I do out of a sense of self-improvement and general enlightenment. That’s bullshit.

Like alcohol and sex, people run because if you do it long enough, the pain and the anger and the everything else just…fades away.
I run to excess. I run until I hurt. I once ran so hard I fractured an ankle, which sucked mostly because it kept me from running more. I’ve run in the rain. I’ve run in the snow. I’ve run in dangerously hot temperatures. I’ve run along the Danube, the Seine, the wine-dark Aegean and the broad streets of Berlin. I’ve run at midnight. I’ve run at five o’clock in the morning, before work, locked myself out of the house, and had to beg the MTA to let me take the subway to work so I could get my house keys. I’ve run at 5400 feet, in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, with the mountaintops beheaded by a morning mist that made everything look like a fairy tale.

I’ve run up to the acropolis at Bergama, under the eyes of bemused Turks who wondered who the hell this American tourist was wearing only shorts and wanted to be let in to see the ruins at seven in the morning. I’ve jogged in the footprints of Alexander.

I’ve jogged over the Brooklyn Bridge, screaming at thoughtless tourists who crowd the bike lane. I’ve jogged it as morning dawns over New York Harbor, golden light reflecting off the windows of the skyscrapers of the financial district, the giant Watchtower sign proclaiming God’s kingdom disappearing behind me, ketches and garbage haulers and schooners and yachts and water taxis sailing down the East River below me and I’ve thought: there is no other place on the planet I would rather be than here, in this moment, doing this, doing nothing else.

My doctor gave me some good advice once, after I recovered from my ankle injury. “You should stop when you start to feel pain.” I nodded like a dutiful patient but, really, no jogger would ever take that advice.

If you stopped when you first felt pain you’d never get to the end of the block. The pain’s the point. Distance running is, fundamentally, not about avoiding pain but embracing it, confronting it, welcoming it, and ultimately transcending it.

Because you reach those points when your lungs are screaming, when your muscles are aching, when you’re dying of dehydration and you curse every extra ounce of fat you’re carrying. You start thinking strange, ludicrous thoughts. You start to negotiate with your body. For me, the conversation sounds a little like Luke Skywalker talking to R2-D2.

Luke: I know the right knee is failing. R2, see if you can’t lock it down.

Sometimes I picture little failure messages popping up in my field of vision, like I’m a robot and my brain is getting little danger signals.

Warning! Heart Rate Exceeding Maximum Safety Levels!

Warning! Body Heat Reaching Critical! Shutting down higher brain functions!

Warning! Structural Integrity of left shin failing! Failure imminent!

I watch a lot of sci-fi.

But the thing is…after awhile you stop fighting the pain. You let it permeate you, fill you, become you. You find there is no you left at all. There’s just the physical sensations you’re experiencing. Your thoughts, your ego, shut down. You have no job. You have no future. You have no fear. You’re free.

Then the strangest thing happens. You start running faster. Because the pain is gone. Because everything’s gone. Because it’s just you out there. You and pavement and the rhythm of your feet striking the ground matching your breath and the world stops. There’s euphoria. You come face to face with that most elusive of all creatures: yourself. If you’re of a religious background, you see, perhaps, God. You know in that moment, that brief, wonderful moment, exactly who you are and what you’re doing, and what’s important.

What’s important is the next step. What’s important is the next breath. And the next. And the next.

Breathe.

And then you fly.

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