It could not be a more beautiful spring morning. Not a cloud in the sky, high fifties, no wind. I sit outside and listen to a single bird, a distant car, a more distant but louder plane. I hear the voices of two men working. They are listening to ‘Desperado,’ by The Eagles. Desperado, Why don’t you come to your senses? I hear a hammer bang in a nail.
I am working alone, as I prefer to do, to hear my own voice. Finally spring is starting to sing, to ring forth its birdsong praises. Winter went on and on, left occasionally but always returned. Yesterday was cold and windy; today may just be a reprieve. All we have is a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. All we have is our daily bread, this ever so slight breeze, this desire to listen to the world, to let it touch us, let it move us deeper into its embrace. Resist the impulse to narrow the focus. To long instead to be embraced by a particular other, to be surrounded by her particular scent. Long for this: to be embraced widely by the world at large, and to embrace it back, to live as if surrounded by Life, which of course I am. If I embrace the whole world, that embrace will include the one I most want to embrace, but if I embrace her alone as if bracing myself against my own aloneness, I brace myself also against the rest of the world, and tensed embrace does not soften, and isolation that involves two people is still isolation, and not union.
All winter I trained, through single digit mornings and wet snow and brutal wind. I kept lacing up the shoes, heading out the door, and getting on the road. Breathing in and out, running with a steady cadence, doing tempo runs and workouts, long runs and strides. Forty to fifty miles a week, sometimes more, mostly alone. Because I worked nights, I usually would wake up late and wouldn’t run first thing. I’d have coffee, try to wake up a little, read aloud a few psalms or poems. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart. But I wouldn’t wait long. Eventually I’d drag my heavy legs out the door, walk up the hill, do a few warm up exercises, and start to jog. It became as routine an activity as eating or sleeping or breathing. Running is hard only when first beginning. It becomes easy and natural once fitness sets in.
But no training block can continue effortlessly forever. The day-in, day-out leg-pounding will have consequences. When I was training for the Marine Corps marathon, I started to feel my Achilles flare up in early October, four weeks before the race, after I did a tune-up half-marathon followed two days later by a hard 5 x 2 mile workout. The sore Achilles followed me all the way up to the race, but strangely enough I did not feel it at all on race day. A similar thing occurred during this training block. At the end of February, I got sick with a bad cold and cough. Friends told me to dial back the running, to go easy or rest completely, give my body a chance to heal. But it is hard to stop exercising cold turkey, the same way it is difficult to stop any pleasurable and habitual activity just like that. Exercise relieves anxiety, boosts mood, helps with sleep, and clears mental debris and brain fog. The list of benefits goes on. It simply feels good to move the body.
So I didn’t stop. I took a couple of days off, but then I ran a tune up race on the tow path about a month before the Cherry Blossom, just as I had done before the marathon. It was a cold morning, in the thirties and raining. Although I did not give an all-out effort, as there was no reason to do so, I did run at a hard 6:02 mile pace, and soon afterwards the cough became a wheezing cough that made it difficult to breathe at times, but I continued to run. The wheezing kept up, both while I was running and not, and I finally went to see a doctor, who told me I had exercise-induced asthma and gave me an inhaler. For no real reason, the week after she gave me that diagnosis, I ran 69 miles, almost ten miles a day, the most I’d ever run in a week. Even though I did not do any workouts, running that much was not a wise move. The asthma worsened, and I took the next week off and felt some improvement. After the off week there were two more weeks before the race. I ran easy most days and did two workouts, both of which I was able to finish without having an asthma-related issue. But on Sunday one week before the race, I was going to do three or four miles at my goal pace of 6 minutes a mile, and before I had even done half a mile, I had an asthma attack.
So I did not know what to expect on race day. Luckily, I had no issues and ended up running the ten-mile race in under an hour, which had been my goal. My brother Collin and one of his college friends paced me for the final two miles. At mile 8, when they joined me, I was on pace for 60 minutes and 20 seconds if I ran two 6 minute miles. I needed to average 5:50 pace for the final two miles to get under an hour, and I averaged 5:39 with their help. I wondered afterwards if I could have run close to that pace for the whole race, but I’m glad I didn’t try to do that. Instead, I started out with a 6:16 mile, a pace I was fairly confident I could hold for ten miles. When I felt good running that pace, I dropped down to around 6 minute pace for the next seven miles, before taking it up a notch for those last two. All in all, I am happy with my time. I think I am capable of running that race faster, but considering the fact that asthma slowed me down in the month leading up to the race, I did as well as I could have hoped.
I do not train in order to run the race. I train because it gives a purpose to my day. No matter what happens the rest of the day, I can go to sleep knowing I accomplished something. Though I might feel aimless for the other twenty-three hours, as if there is no definite meaning or clear purpose to my life, for the hour that I run my purpose is to keep running, and even if I run around the same two mile loop four times, literally going around and around in a circle, I do not feel metaphorically that this is the case. I am not running around my life or away from it but moving myself along with it so I can see it with fresh eyes, from a new vantage point, so it does not run me by. The run is routine and may even feel monotonous, while at the same time it frees my heart and mind from the cages I’ve locked them in. I do not feel trapped inside my body when I feel my body from inside. Only when I am immobile, out of contact with the moving body and quiet mind, do I feel mind and body as separate from each other yet thrown together into the same prison. Moving softens and relaxes the heart, frees and opens the mind, strengthens the body while simultaneously allowing it to feel a sense of ease and flow.
The wind has picked up a little now. I hear the songs of two different birds. Though the wind is cool, the sun is warm. I take off my sweatshirt.
Today I hope to see someone I care about. I care about her more than I care about running. Running can become a substitute for relationship, an escape from both the desire and the fear of intimacy, instead of a wonderful and energizing way to become intimate with one’s own body. It can be solely a method to become stronger and fitter, instead of a way also to be with oneself at one’s current level of strength and fitness. If I run wishing to be different—stronger, fitter, better—I may never make contact with how and who I am now. If I run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties of relationship, I also run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties in myself. If I run to try and rid myself of sadness, I may temporarily succeed as the endorphins kick in and my mood picks up, but the avoidance, the desire to evade or out-run my present experience, will seep into every aspect of my life. To attempt to flee the flood is to be flooded again when I return. Like Jonah I must wake up and face the town of unfaithful strangers. The town is within the beast in my own gut, and all my muffled groaning will not make those strangers disappear. They exist so long as I alternately resist and give into the strange siren song of my self-estrangement.
Today I may not see the person I hope to see. I may believe, not in the God of my understanding, but in the tragic misunderstanding that mistakes seeing and being with her, even in part, for contact with the true heart that does not need to be made whole, for it is whole already. I may despair that I will ever see her truly, in the way she deserves to be seen, the way God sees her, but that instead I will see her subjectively, screened by the dark clouds of craving and clinging, pulling toward and pushing away. Today I may want to push Life away, to say its whims do not suit me, its thorns are too many, and its blossoms too few. I may choose to pursue not the truth of my experience but anything and everything that might offer temporary relief from my pain. I may not know how to give glory to God for twenty-three hours of the day. I may not even believe it is possible. I may feel empty and lost, at a lifelong crossroads in which I make the wrong turn forever. I may feel severed from love, may feel as if I will never successfully weather life’s storms, as if shipwreck is the only truth, and rescue the only impossibility.
But as afternoon turns into evening I know I will lace up my shoes and head out the door. And for one hour my life will have a very simple purpose: to go forward, to run. Lord knows I was not put on this earth to go back into the womb. Lord who knows me, lead me out the door. Help me trust my own two feet to take me around the path, up the hill, and back home.