When I was younger, my dad used to tell me the story of how he fell in love with running. He was fifteen, at a sleepaway camp deep in the Vermont woods. One night when he was – frustrated with his counselors? bored of the routine? I’d like to imagine – he ventured down the driveway, and out of the camp. There were no cars on the main road, just streetlights and houses so deep-set he could only see their windows. And sweet, sweet silence.
My dad ran for miles. Just a skinny boy with no phone, tracing the light’s path forward. He says he ran every night after that (seems unlikely), and that he’d run for hours before he turned around (definitely false). My dad has a propensity for exaggerating. But I’m sure that’s how it felt, at least, and that’s how he told the story.
My dad used to run every Saturday morning when I was growing up. It was his one indulgence, the only fissure in the armor of my parents’ very busy, very responsible lives—a daily rhythm that consisted of rising at six, arriving at the hospital by seven, and working late into the evening on patient records, which they’d shield with their hands when I’d pass by their laptops. Somehow, they also deposited my sister and me on the bus, spread peanut butter on our sandwiches, and tucked us into bed. Then back to the computers.
But on Saturday mornings, my dad would disappear from our house with the dog and return hours later, covered in mud. At the end of the only decent running trail in the suburbs is a swampy pond that you could, by very loose standards, call a swimming hole. My dad would leap into the calm, green water with our yellow lab like it was the most natural thing to do. At home, he’d squat down to clean the mud tracks on the kitchen floor, beaming and retelling stories of his best running days in San Francisco.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes that long-distance running is a meditative practice. He references a quote from English writer Somerset Maugham: in every shave there is a philosophy.
Murakami says it’s the same with running. No matter where in the world he is, the 71-year-old runs every day. Every year since he was 33, he has run a full marathon. Murakami notices his speed and his times, but he doesn’t worry about them. For him, the purpose of running is not to get faster or stay in shape. It’s about the practice––how an act repeated mindfully again and again becomes a ritual.
“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.” Murakami writes.
Running as a cure for awkwardness.
I never ran—really ran—until I was sixteen. I was never on a cross-country team, and I was consistently one of the slowest kids in the gym class 50-meter dash. Needless to say, I was not recruited to join a sports team, and I funneled all of my energy and angst into school.
My sixteen years of awkwardness stemmed from the fact that my nose was constantly shoved in a book. I read for English and World History, worshipped the twin pillars of schoolwork and homework, and when I finished my assignments, I buried myself under books for pleasure. Surfacing into the real world felt disorienting, stressful, and disappointing. None of the Big Feelings in books could be found in my real life.
One weekday in December when I was in eleventh grade, my dad suggested we all go running. We had just finished dinner, and my sister and I were trudging upstairs to study. It was thirty degrees outside, and the thought of running seemed ridiculous. But somehow my dad convinced us, and we bundled ourselves in layers of shirts and two pairs of pants each. We dusted off clunky yellow flashlights from the top shelf of our laundry room and got in the car.
Ten minutes away, deep into the labyrinth of suburban streets, was Jerome Jay— an endless hill of mansions, each unbelievably grand. Driving down Jerome Jay feels like passing a procession of strange and magnificent birds. On our way to school, my sister and I liked to rank them, our eyes always settling on the cream-colored house with the stone cherub fountain in the yard.
Through the car window, the houses became indistinguishable, a dark row of identical monoliths. My dad parked halfway up the street, past the initial incline, in the flat space in front of someone’s house. The lights on the first and second floor of the house were on, and I thought how strange those people must think it was to see three bundled figures jogging past their house at nine at night.
My flashlight with its weak bulbs shone only a few feet in front of me, and I followed the light mindlessly, my thoughts still wandering in the margins of my calculus textbook. Under layers of clothing, my blood slowly warmed up and my fingers felt less cold when I touched them to my cheek. My knees and hips and arms started moving as one, as awkward steps turned to ease. I drank the cold, spacious air and suddenly became aware of the shape of my lungs, the sensitivities in my nose, the place where all the air tunnels inside me connected.
We ran, each in our own trance, the three of us filling the width of the street. After fifteen minutes, my sister got tired, so we turned around. The way back was downhill, and my dad spread his arms wide like he was one of the birds on Jerome Jay. He sped ahead of us, flying down towards the car, my sister chasing at his heels. Annoyed, I kept my pace. I listened to the rhythm of my breath—in, hold, out, hold—steady, even as my body fell quickly, surely, joyfully down the hill.
In the Buddhist novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha – the beautiful son of a revered Indian Brahmin – runs away from home, leaving behind his family and village in search of spiritual fulfillment. He joins a group of wandering ascetics and adopts their practices, but ultimately, he decides he must seek meaning on his own. After parting ways with his best friend, he sets off alone, walking slowly through nature and pondering the world around him.
Finally, he is awakened.
He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time… Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden… The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.
When I run, I look at the rivers and the sky and the forests, and I feel this everything. It feels like a collective breath in, and sigh out. Like the closest thing to religion I’ve felt.
After I got into college, I spent my senior year running up and down the inclines of Jerome Jay. If you run from one end of Jerome Jay to the other and back, it’s an even four miles, but if you turn left and run until you reach the main road, the entire loop can reach up to eight. I memorized the plants in front of the houses, memorized the place where my feet made a strange sound because the road is filled in with a different concrete, and noticed the passage where the trees become so thick that for a few seconds it feels like you’re in a wind tunnel. I ran Jerome Jay regardless of the weather, my homework, friends, or whatever else was going on in my life. At school, I often felt my body longing for the unparalleled freedom and stillness of running.
Running as a physical addiction. Running as the substance of life. Running as My Big Feeling.
Running remained my savior in college. My elixir for all evils. I found another hill – Prospect Street – and I ran up and down every day. Sometimes I’d run twice in one day and my hair became bone dry from showering. One weekend, I ran a half-marathon.
There was no sadness or anger or loss that running could not heal. It was not so much that running fixed whatever was bothering me, but that it returned me to myself. To a feeling of power and stability and connection with nature. When my friends coupled up and found boyfriends and girlfriends to hold them, I’d wake up early and run. Yes, there was loneliness, but running was a fundamentally un-lonely feeling. I got in the habit of outstretching my arms like my dad did when I ran down Prospect Street and I felt that the world was embracing me. In this sense, running became a form of praying.
When I reported back to my dad about my runs, I swear he sounded jealous, as if I had gone to visit a mutual friend without inviting him. As a peace offering, I sent him a copy of Murakami’s book.
During spring break of my sophomore year, I returned to my Jerome Jay running route. As much as I loved the burnt orange leaves of Prospect Street, there was something about Jerome Jay that felt deeply comforting.
On a particularly euphoric run, I veered off onto a new side street to extend my route. The sun had just set, and the sky was stained with dark blue clouds that clustered around the impossibly large mansions with their sprawling front yards. I had never been down this street before and it turned out to be a long cul-de-sac. I turned around at the end, pleased with my extra distance and discoveries.
Then suddenly: fear. My breath caught and my body turned into tingling, screaming nerves.
An orange car with its top down drove slowly towards me. It was the only car on the street and I scanned quickly and saw no cars in driveways. Found nothing in my pockets.
The man in the front seat watched me speed up, fumble with my phone. At the last second, I hopped off the road and darted through the front yard towards the woods behind one of the houses.
The car paused before the end of the cul-de-sac, where it meets Jerome Jay, and I thought for a second it would leave. That I had overreacted. But it re-entered the cul-de-sac, blocking my exit, and heading straight towards me. For just a moment, we made eye contact.
I sprinted deeper into the woods and called my dad and tried to breathe.
On the drive home, my dad asked questions. He said he didn’t understand how this had happened. I said I was not surprised.
I stretched out my legs in the car. Left leg. Knee to nose. Right leg. Knee to nose.
For the rest of spring break, I wanted to run, but every time I got out of my car on Jerome Jay, my heart started racing. I’d bring pepper spray, a button sounding an alarm, and a ring that converted into a knife on my finger, but I’d still spend the entire run looking over my shoulder. Every time a car passed, I’d hover my finger over 911 and plan out my escape route in my head.
There was nothing that could be done. I asked my dad to run with me a couple of times, and I’d wait at the front door as he finished his work. I felt powerless sitting in the car next to him, like a child that needed a chaperone just to go outside. I felt ashamed of being so upset.
At school, I began running with friends. Our chatter fueled my legs further than they could take me alone, but the next day, the urge to run by myself remained, like a small but persistent plant begging to be watered.
So just weeks after the incident at home, I ran up Prospect by myself, weapons in hand. Running became a new sort of prayer – don’t kill me, don’t kill me– I would chant at every passing car, readying my pepper spray, my friend’s phone number already dialed in. Please – the car slowing beside me – punish me some other way.
I felt small, staring up at the empty sky, my feet pitter-pattering down the sidewalk. My heart dangled a few feet in front of me, a large tangle of blue tissue and feelings and veins.
Running as a reckoning. As a way of pleading with God and being answered, with my life, again and again and again.
One afternoon, a few miles away from campus, a car with one man inside pulled over beside me. This is it, I thought. There is no one else here and no woods to hide in. Somehow it felt expected, inevitable. I waited.
Coincidentally, a friend texted me, asking what I was doing and I frantically tapped out a response. She stayed on the phone with me, as I ran into someone’s backyard, and called an Uber back to campus.
Back in my room, I thought I had misjudged the situation. The car had probably been harmless. But the big ball of blood and veins groaned out. Something was wrong. Is there something you believe in? Anything?
I sat down at my desk and returned to my classes.
Running as just another ritual.
In “Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg compares writing to a meditation. Through the practice of it, the steady ritual, a writer learns to trust herself. The practice of sitting down every day, of filling stacks of notebooks with scribbles that will never be published is a practice in self-trust, in mind-body synchronicity.
“It is undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment,” she writes. “Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden…It’s a continual practice.”
Like Murakami, Goldberg identifies the incredible similarity between writing and running. In fact, she finds them similar to any other immersive practice. Running could be subbed out for dancing, praying, mindful walking.
I stand in front of my dormitory bathroom mirror, brushing my teeth. The brush makes little foams of toothpaste on each tooth, a coating to be swished away with water. I try to empty my mind.
I have read six of Murakami’s books and dozens of his short stories. I even taped a picture of him to my wall at home last winter break. My printer was jammed, so I went to the FedEx near my house and asked for the cashier’s help to print on off-white cardstock for an extra 99 cents. We watched together as the paper emerged from the printer – materializing, inch by inch, the over-inked image of an old man running.
“Who is that dude?” the cashier asked me.
I told him and he asked if I read a lot and where I went to school. I think he may have been flirting with me but I’m not sure.
I’ve been noticing lately the way Murakami portrays women in his books. His stories are usually about a solitary male protagonist embarking on a mystical journey. On that journey, women are objects of mystery, vessels for the protagonist to liberate himself sexually, and accomplices to guide him towards clarity at the end of the novel. I know this because I did a deep-dive into all the Internet criticism one night.
I wish I hadn’t, though, because it makes me feel weird every time I look at the picture on my wall. Murakami’s gait looks steady, and his expression is earnest, like he is seeking something far off on the horizon. Even when I took down all the other pictures, I still left his up.
These days, I run sometimes. I joined the club swim team at school, and we practice two nights every week. I lose myself following the speckled blue line on the pool’s floor, comforted to hear the splashes of my teammates in the lanes beside me. I walk home from the gym at ten o’clock, my hair dripping a cool stream down my back, and turn the shower to the hottest it goes.
At home, I run side-by-side with my dad, pounding our feet in rhythm along the road. We rarely talk about what running means to us these days – it is too much, like drawing the ocean with a Crayola box – and yet I know that running is both of our crucibles, no longer pure magic for me, but still worshipped in the depths of our innermost minds.
Sometimes, when I am feeling – confused, alone, brave – I set off by myself. I don’t venture too far off campus, at most a mile in any direction, before the houses become sparse and the blue-light boxes stop. When I return, I spread my arms wide, no matter how many people are around to see.
—Meera Rothman is a senior in Benjamin Franklin College and an Associate Editor.