Why I Run

I'm closing in on a nine-minute mile. It's only over 5k distance, so no big whoop. I'm going to have to push harder to comfortably maintain that pace for anything longer than a 10k, but still, I'm a few steps down the road toward a sub-four-hour marathon. Woo hoo.

Had a good one last Friday. Beat my 5k record of the previous week, which beat my record of two days before, which beat my record of a week prior to that. I'm on a good one right now. Feet: Gently Chewed.

Thing is, I don't often enjoy running. I hate it, sometimes. Sometimes it's everything I can do to drag myself out there, sometimes I get a mile or two out and think "screw it, there's popcorn at home" and turn back. So why do it?

Shortest and most obvious answer is vanity. I'll cop to that. There's also a smörgåsbord of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in my family, and I'll be damned if I'm going out like that. But I think there's something else in there too, something that may not be exactly venerable but at least on the up-and-up, morally speaking.

Terry Pratchett, may the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos smile upon him with one its six mouths, once wrote that "Too many people want to have written," and that's pretty much how I view going out for a jog. I don't want to run. I want to have run.

Specifically, I want to be on that cool-down walk that starts at Steve's white Chevy pickup and goes down the slope and around the curve and finishes at my driveway. That walk, even after a bad run, tells me I have given my due and earned my rest.

I've left at least some of my cares on the pavement. I've sweated, I've pushed myself, I've produced a frankly disturbing amount of mucus. I've made my down-belows smell like my left-behinds. My feet are mildly to moderately raw. There's a good round of stretching and a shower in my near future. Best of all, my muscles are slack, my shoulders are back, and my head's surrounded by cartoon bluebirds.

I loved hallucinating when I was young and stupid. A mental experience that's nearly impossible to describe? For a guy like me, that's its own advertising. I loved watching my brain unfurl. I remember lying in the middle of a country road with three good friends, looking up at the stars and talking about exactly the kind of shroomed-up pseudo-profundity you'd expect we were talking about. But it was Technicolor, and to us children it sure sounded profound. For a few hours, it took away so much grey.

I heard a thing once about a study conducted of those rare musicians who can start composing songs on the spot. No planning, no backup band, no nothing, just pick up their instrument and out comes a song nobody ever played before. They did neurological scans of these guys as they played (yeah, I know, the old Radiolab brainscan plot point, but still), and they found that the part of the brain associated with censoring ourselves wasn't firing for them. Their creation sprung at least partly from a complete lack of self-consciousness.

Indeed, I've found myself circling the boundaries of sleep with a hyperactive imagination, dreaming up images and landscapes and movement and shapes and colors that were captivating, wishing to Christ I could somehow record it all and play it back later. But then the sleep came, the moment went, and all I have left is the longing.

The drugs let you do that while you're fully awake. That's the hook. A heightened facility for letting go of yourself and chasing the weird shit out the basement of your brain. I was hooked on that. I wanted it all the time. That's why so many artists are addicts. Booze and drugs are lubricants. They make it easier. But it never lasts, and that's the cost.

Sometimes running does a bit of that to you. Sometimes pushing yourself to your physical limits makes your mind more fluid, more curious, more starved to imagine. Sometimes merely being worn out is enough to keep you from censoring yourself. Sometimes, as after last Friday's run, I hear grasshoppers from a block away and smell barbecue from last week and wrap myself in the conversation that is outside, and I dream while walking.

When you get to distance, sometimes you reach a state like auto-hypnosis. Mile...I dunno, ten? Twelve? Fifteen? You seem to both delve within yourself and yet lose your sense of self. The padding of your feet on asphalt. The rhythmic breathing on the brink of entropy. The twisting of your abdomen and spine. You are abstracted.

In the middle of you is an empty thing. It is dark. Not evil or foreboding or devoid of life, but like what I imagine outerspace to be: quiet, patient, spinning, waiting to be discovered.

Nietzsche looked into it and saw nothing. Kierkegaard saw what he believed was the gulf separating humankind from God. I don't know what I see, but I hear silence. I can lose myself in that silence. I can get out of my way, for at least a little while. When I emerge, things are a bit different. I don't know how. But I feel cleansed.

Soon after my son was born, my mother-in-law came over for a visit, and I excused myself to go do eight miles on our treadmill and get my head right. She shook her own head when I was done and marveled that I, the parent of a newborn, could have the energy to do that.

The answer, of course, was that spending an hour throwing myself onto the ground was my survival strategy. Find that center, lose myself in it, come back. Energy? I was a new father. I was a tangle of bedsprings. When his little sister was born and I was no longer doing distance? That was harder to endure.

And then there is that fix. Endorphins swabbing the decks of my brain. A quiver in my leg. The groaning of my iliotibial bands when I grab a knee and its associated ankle afterward and pull. The water. The water. The water.

I make it to Steve's truck, and I wipe my head with my shirt and start to walk. I dream of the apocalypse. I dream of my children and the world they will inherit, which is to say that I dream of the apocalypse. I dream of being president and harp blower and algorithmist and blacksmith and writer and volunteer, and my quadriceps shake and for a second I take my eyes off of the pointy things in the street and I look up at the moon. Sanya Richards-Ross congratulates me through my earbuds and I realize that this is the wake of an acid orgasm, only more painful.

Which makes it more interesting. And more real.

Pushing myself to that center makes me malleable, moldable. If the pain and tiredness aren't too much (and at this distance, they never are unless it's hot), I am ready to see things. I am ready to work.

I'm addicted again to a thing I don't often care for, but this one's going to give me more time with my family, and it won't lie to me or pick my pocket.

Could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I just quit drinking.