On Disappearing, Epic Journeys and Running

Over the course of the last decade or so, I’ve suffered from dozens of temporary obsessions:

  • Yoga: love the idea, hate the practice.
  • Marie Kondo: My space is still a mess, but at least I’m only buying stuff that brings me joy now.
  • homesteading: I am way too lazy for the homesteading life, but still, it appeals to me.  Female Christian home schooling moms is another past interest of mine, and often goes hand-in-hand with homesteading, I’ve found.
  • Financial independence: Let’s be real — I’m not a precociously retired tech worker, but I have paid off almost all my debt over the last three years.
  • Next Door: I still think this is one of the greatest living testaments of American life in the 21st century, but my summer time Next Door fervor has decreased in intensity.

Through it all, there have been three interests that have survived by many ephemeral whims and short-lived passions:

1.) People who disappear on purpose. I can’t help but be intrigued by these types of people, especially if the individual disappeared in a bid for anonymity or a different kind of life – e.g. The North Pond Hermit – if you haven’t read the GQ article, I strongly recommend it.

2.) Epic journeys. It doesn’t matter if it’s a walking, cycling or driving journey. I am fascinated by people who feel the need to set out on weeks-long, months-long, years-long journey (e.g. Wild and Grandma Gatewood’s Walk). Even more fascinated if they set out alone. What drives them? What do they hope to gain? Does this kind of thing bring any sort of closure or transcendence, or do these people just end up feeling like they’ve wasted six months of their lives only to end up in the same place? When I read these kinds of books or articles, I feel like these questions are never fully answered.

3.) Running. Specifically, long distance running. I’ve tried to be a runner exactly four times in my life. I’m trying again right now. Whenever I see someone running, I experience, as best I can describe it, a wave of awe and envy that is so strong I can feel it in my body. I imagine — maybe unrealistically — that runners enter a sort of Zen meditative state, and I want that for myself. I want blankness and freedom. There is something so primitive and visceral to me about the desire to run – if not the actual act. I’m pretty sure I’ve read every story published on running in the New Yorker, The Atlantic and Longreads, so now I’m transitioning to books on running.

It’s hard to say exactly what these three interests say about me as a person. The best way I can explain it is to say that I’ve had a pleasant and easy life of mostly mild to moderate emotions, but there’s a part of me that covets the extreme highs and lows mostly absent from my life – the primitive kinds of emotions I imagine people who run long distances, disappear, or go on long trips must experience. But that’s not even quite right; I don’t want to experience suffering, at least not unplanned for suffering – what I want, I think, is a greater sense of fullness of life — a fuller human experience, but in a controlled and contrived way. If you run a marathon, you are purposely and unnecessarily putting yourself through a very difficult thing, both emotionally and physically. But it’s something you’ve done to yourself.

I sometimes succumb – I hate that word but that’s what it feels like: falling hard into a cushy recliner of inertia – to a state of resigned (but pleasant!) ennui in my day-to-day life. Routine is sedating sometimes. When this happens, my life starts feeling small. I start fantasizing about things like moving West or moving back to Colombia. There was even a brief period last winter when I started cultivating fantasies of moving to Florida (gasp!) even though every time I’ve gone to Florida, I leave wondering how anyone could voluntarily decide to live there (sorry Floridians– your state is too flat, too swampy and too beach-y for me, a hater of sand and topographic one-dimensionality).

Beach St. Pete 1

I mean, the Florida sunsets are nice, but who can live in such a flat place?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve experienced an acute sense of loss and nostalgia for the lives I don’t live, frequently at the cost of the one I do live. I sometimes live my real life at a slight remove because I’m still holding out for the potential of alternative lives. Geography is the greatest character in my self-narrative; it plays an outsized starring role, considering I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for the last seven years and am currently living one mile from my childhood home. But I think about places so much. Places — the thinking about them part — takes up too much bandwidth in my mind. I don’t fantasize about things like a new marriage, a new haircut or a new career: I fantasize about things like building a life in the Sonoran desert or the Panamanian cloud forest. I like expansiveness. I want expansiveness. And I like the idea of starting over: Disappearing, epic journeys, even running — all these things suggest something transformative and new.

arizona-catalina-state-park-land-before-times

The Sonoran Desert.

I cannot, and I do not want to, disappear. Disappearing is more a metaphorical interest to me. Ditto epic journeys.

But I can (barely) run.

I downloaded the C25K app yet again and have been convincing my husband to join me on late-night neighborhood runs – more walking than running at this point – every other night. He mostly walks leisurely beside me even while *I think* I’m running. I’m sweaty and out of breath two minutes in, and he’s calmly reading the news on his phone. It took a couple of weeks, but I think I’ve found a route I like: It starts off downhill for about 3/4 of a mile until I hit the end of the sidewalk, so it gets me off to a strong start: I feel fast and capable for the first 10 minutes. It feels auspicious (I’ve always wanted to use that word). When the sidewalk ends, I turn right onto a hilly asphalt path sandwiched between a main road and a swampy drainage area. I run past the back of my childhood house and I can’t help it: I always take a quick look at my old backyard and deck. The new owners built a kitchen addition, but the 10-year-old deck sail is still going strong. Strangely, I feel no nostalgia towards the house I grew up in, the house I lived in for almost two decades – all I feel is a casual familiarity. This part of the run is challenging. I have about 50 pounds to lose, and I feel every one of these extra pounds on even the slightest hill. After a half-mile of gasping for air, I turn right into an established, 1980s-era neighborhood, homes once inhabited by blue-collar workers and their families and now inhabited by mid-level white-collar professionals and their families. But there is no reprieve yet for a beginning runner, only better scenery: It’s a mild but steady uphill climb for the next mile, and I have to tell myself things like I’ll run to the next tree, I can make it to the mailbox, I just need to get to the blue house to keep myself going. When I’ve reached the point where I seriously don’t think I can run anymore, I turn left again towards my house, passing the pipeline park and a hidden wooded creek on my right and more single-family homes on my left. It’s a nice downhill again for the last quarter mile, so I get to finish fast, and that helps me forget the awfulness of the middle 1.5 miles. My current pace right now, in case you’re interested? 12-15 mph, depending on what kind of surface I’m running on.

Pipeline park

The pipeline park in the evening.

I really like being out at night. There are very few cars and only a handful of other runners and walkers on the streets. It feels like I belong to an exclusive club of nighttime outside exercisers. Sometimes we nod or wave to each other; usually we just keep our eyes down, headlamps illuminating the uneven sidewalk beneath our feet.  My husband and I occasionally see a bat or hear a dog barking, but otherwise, even the birds are quiet, tucked away in the oaks and sycamores that line my neighborhood.  It’s a no-man’s land in the suburbs after 9 p.m.

I cannot in any way call myself a runner. Right now, the longest I can run non-stop is five minutes, and that’s really pushing the outer reaches of my abilities. It feels amazing and horrible at the same time. But I can see how running can become addictive: I get to experience extreme highs and lows within a 30-minute period, but I’m totally in control of these feelings inasmuch as I’m choosing to run. No one is forcing me. I feel fully alive, but I also fully feel the hard boundaries of my limits. The term easy run is foreign to me. I’m not going to go from where I am now to long distance running anytime soon. But I could, eventually, if I keep at it.

I just finished reading “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” by Haruki Murakami. I’ve never read any of his other works, but I really enjoyed his interpretations of how running has shaped him as a writer. The book’s cadence and pacing mimics the realities of what it takes to be a runner and a writer over a long period of time. He writes about what goes through his head when he runs, and I found his reflections  surprisingly enjoyable and hypnotic.  When I ran at a local park this past Sunday, I decided to be mindful of my own thoughts. For the most part, running currently requires so much physical effort on my part that all my energy is focused on moving forward rather than formulating coherent thoughts. I can’t even listen to music because it distracts me from my effort. But these are some of the thoughts I remember experiencing on Sunday morning: I’m hardly getting any lift out of my steps. I need to lift my feet higher. How am I only doing a 14-minute-mile?  My legs feel like lead. Oh, they feel better now all the sudden. I think I could run for a while. Never mind, ha! Lead again. Oh, a deer! No! Don’t run away! Pretty: the sun is shining through the forest. Horse poop. This must be a horse trail. It’s not even officially fall yet and the ground is covered in dry brown leaves. I wonder when the ferns disappear, and dead leaves take over. I hope this trail is a loop. I should have looked at a trail map. I should turn around in case it isn’t. Yeah, I’m turning around. I think I can do the program twice today. I will run to that tree before I look at the time. I think I only have one minute of running left. Dang it, I have two minutes left. If I get lost on this trail, I would be so embarrassed. I’m pretty sure I passed this tree. Would I actually recognize a specific tree in the forest? Yes! I remember this boardwalk! I’m pretty sure. Seems shorter than I remember. Oh, thank God, back on the main park loop. Oh my God, I’m so sweaty and I can’t feel my legs. I’m going to come back next week and do the Bluebell Trail. How’s it possible I only ran 1.24 miles? I think I could be fast if I lost weight. I wonder if I could ever run a marathon. Shoot. I forgot I have to walk half a mile more to get to my car.

ALFIE

I’m including this amazing portrait of poor Alfie, because he lost his reign as the king of the household when Katherine was born and this makes him sad.

Hardly transformative, but I want to go back next week. It feels like I’m chipping away at something.



Categories: Outdoors, Reflections, Serious Stuff

2 replies

  1. This is beautiful.

    I like the part of running where I feel my calves open up. It happens early, in the first few minutes.

    I also love to sprint!

    And I like how big my lungs feel after I run. A marvelous sensation that I can enjoy for hours afterward.

    The rest ranges from terrible to torturous.

    • Nora, I agree…most of it ranges from terrible to torturous.

      I never feel my calves open up. I didn’t know they were closed.

      I don’t like to sprint. That sounds torturous.

      My lungs don’t seem to grow. It’s more like they shrink.

      I do like the seconds where I feel like I’m not struggling and my legs are moving in harmony with the rest of my body. It’s kind of like going downhill on a bike.

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