I’ve been trying for a while now to write a post about running. After all, I do have the word “runner” in my blog subtitle. But I kept hitting the wall. So I’m grateful that John L. Parker helped me find the words.
There’s a reason why many runners consider Parker’s Once a Runner the best novel written about running. It’s probably not the tedious Quentin vs. the university officials conflict, nor is it the dangerous training program that Quentin followed. (Tip: When your pee turns to blood, it’s time to stop running.)
It’s an inspiration to read how Parker translates into words the pure joy of running. For me, this joy lies in planting one foot in front of the other. The crunch of earth and dust on the trail. The sun in your eyes, the tailwind at your heels. The cadence of your breath and your heartbeat. On the best of days, all these elements coalesce to make you feel painfully, beautifully, intensely alive.
I’ve been running on and off since my teens, but always with some far-off goal in mind. Losing weight. Or fulfilling PE credits so I could graduate. It’s only in the last two years or so when I began running for the sake of it. Running itself became the goal. But for a long time, I couldn’t articulate why.
There’s a passage in Once a Runner where Quentin struggles to explain what drives him to run:
He ran because it grounded him in basics. There was both life and death in it… Running to him was real, the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.
It made him free.
I’m a back-of-the-packer, nowhere near Quentin’s league. It will take a Faustian bargain for me to sustain a 9 minute mile for an entire 10K, much less a marathon. Sometimes, I even entertain the idea of doing the Western States 100, but it’s not an obsession, and I’ll be fine if I don’t. But there are times when I get into a really good run, and like Quentin, I feel like I can’t make myself tired. These are moments that I feel truly free.
I don’t even think it’s the running itself, but the struggle to do it, that generates these moments of freedom. And I think this potential to generate such moments informs all our struggles. This potential is tantalizingly present on the trail. And in the classroom, facing hostile students who conflate critical pedagogy with indoctrination. And in facing allies, otherwise good people who willingly gloss over the experiences and concerns of others.
And yes, these struggles can and do make us weary.
But then, the student you least expect to turns in an insightful paper. An ally modifies his worldview, just a little maybe, but it’s a start. I shave a few seconds off a personal best. These moments don’t happen everyday, but they happen often enough to keep me running.
The struggle to crest one more hill, the struggle to connect with others, these are all struggles that ground us.
Writing. Running. Teaching. Loving. My struggles generate woe and joy. And in the long run, they make me free.
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