The Pain (and Joy) of Running

Opinion by Alex Bayer
July 22, 2013, 2:19 p.m.

I’m in Nantucket with my friend and her family, and though I’ve never felt quite like I belonged in a place like this, it’s quite nice. Beach life has a way of seeping into you, making your whole body heavy. Not with tiredness (I’m sleeping too much) or physical exhaustion. Is it the air, I wonder? Is the mixture of sea salt and a warm breeze a kind of narcotic? I feel like Dorothy falling asleep in a bed of poppies, too limp to think. I fall asleep like a happy baby, walk like an elderly woman without anywhere to go.

On the first night I was here, I found myself sitting alone on the beach, staring out at the waves. I felt so at peace that the world seemed to close in around me, everything going still for a moment. Inner peace: it had seemed so deceptively close then, and I wondered whether this is all it took – shipping out to paradise, and leaving all the worries and regrets back on the mainland.

This is what being a kid was – is – like: staring out at the sky and sea with nothing in between. I turned to the sky, and suddenly sensed its infinitude: a mast unfurling all the way to beaches in Australia and Thailand, a thousand adventures waiting to happen. Maybe I would share this sky, on a new beach, with a gaggle of foreign friends, or a lover. Imagine how infinite the sky would seem then. I was already having dreams in my dreams, a bit of self-inception.

I turned to the sea and studied the fog, imagined whales and old foghorns plowing through the night. So this is what it was like to have been a kid: there was adventure in everything. It showed itself to me in this perfect kind of silence, where it was just me and the earth, and no unanswered emails in between.

But of course, this moment of peace didn’t last. I’m too weary, too cynical, to really believe it would. Even in a place like this, my old anxieties have a way of tracking me down, like a spy who just can’t escape her foes no matter how many names she tries on or identities she wriggles into. Sure enough, the next morning I woke up at 4 a.m., that evil hour, and couldn’t fall back asleep. An hour of tossing and turning, eyes half-opening and closing, huffing at the light, until I finally threw up my hands and gave up. I put on my sneakers and headed down the road towards the beach.

I was not technically supposed to be running. I had a sketchy-looking mole removed last week (lovely, right?) and the patch of skin it formerly occupied was now an unsightly purple wound tied up with stitches. The doctor told me that if I ran, the wound wouldn’t heal as well and might leave behind a more visible scar. But I couldn’t not run — I had to get rid of these anxieties, whatever they were (nameless and tangled at this hour). And so I ran in spite of it, this pair of purple lips pouting at me angrily all the way. Good, I thought: I’d been so worn out obsessing over beauty image as of late that this came as a kind of relief. So what if there was a fat scar running alongside my thigh? Matter of fact, here’s a present for you: a scar. Learn what to make of that.

But beauty’s only the half of it. I remember one night in May, when I was stressed out of my mind. It must have been 9 p.m., and I got the urge to run. I don’t know; I’m not a runner. My calves get sore and all that. But I put on my sneakers anyways and headed into the night. I dashed underneath pools of orange streetlight, past headlights. I turned up the volume and ran as fast as I could, stuffing all the anger I could muster into my legs so that when they hit the pavement, they snuffed them out right there.

Man, did it feel good. Man, did I feel vindicated. Running like that for myself. Not the Gods of beauty. I put on another song, a song so bloated with memories of Coachella (the feeling of being lost; the ecstasy of dancing; so many rises and falls packed into it that it might as well be a Shakespeare tragedy) that I wanted to dance and cry at the same time. I tilted my head back, felt the wind rushing through me. I felt like I was floating. I probably looked like a crazy person but, man, was it liberating.

Sitting on the beach, peaceful as it was, I felt a little helpless waiting for it to end, knowing too well that it would. I thought that maybe, if I diligently held on to the feeling, I could keep it in my grasp for a while longer. If I forgot about it even for a second, I was afraid, it would slip right out of me like a con artist. I couldn’t enjoy the moment; I was too wrapped up with prolonging it.

I was powerless. Sitting on the beach, I was waiting for the peace to decide to up and leave. But running, I was hunting it down, seizing it, carving it out of nothing. It’s one thing to be blessed with a visit from Tranquility. One could wallow there for eternity. But it’s another thing to claw yourself out of the very opposite: the throes of sheets, the pale light of early morning, a mind that won’t shut up. The moments of quiet are few and far in between, but the struggle is everywhere: it’s the white noise, the undercurrent of our lives.

That said, arriving at those moments of impossible stillness are feats in themselves. Intense peace is not possible without intense stress. You can’t experience a release if there’s nothing to be released from. But the experience of actually experiencing acute happiness is passive: you have no control over when it slips away. The more you fight to prolong it, the more easily it skitters away. The only thing to do is enjoy it – harder said than done when you know it’s going to end and don’t know when you’ll see it next. I guess I like running because you can fight for it — if not to feel happiness, then to not feel sad. It’s like clawing out of something, into something. And this, this feels like power. Not sitting on a beach, but hitting the pavement.

That is what I’ll remember: the lighthouse coming into view in the golden light, running my hands through the dewy tall grass, stopping to peer down the crumbling cliff. An adventure. Me: a kid poking through her backyard. Not running to burn calories or to get in shape. Running, then stopping, letting my eyes wander. I felt I had all the time in the world. I could be here all morning. I could run for as long as I wanted, past the lighthouse if I wanted.

Electric. That’s what it felt like. Electric, like sitting on the beach and imagining whales ballooning in the ocean, and what the sky looked like in Melbourne. The electricity rooted in dreams of faraway places, but planted right here, in the present moment.

Emanating from my tingling legs or maybe my heart spinning from its sudden catharsis. The lighthouse, the dewy grass, the light spreading everywhere. Like my childlike avatar sitting on the beach, I took it all in without a filter, expect that was it. I didn’t imagine lighthouses in New Zealand, or how the light might fall on a beach in Thailand.

I guess you could say I was content here. But I could’ve been content anywhere: the peace was coming from within. I’d lost the battle for sleep, but somewhere made it to the edge of this bluff. I wanted to cry for no good reason (and I did, almost, I was so tired now). The scar was squealing with rage; the exhaustion was crashing back into me. Sleep: sometimes I get the feeling it’s one of those “friends” who’s friends with you on a good day and conveniently deserts you on bad ones. And sure enough, here it was, back with open arms to take me in. But I didn’t need it anymore. I was too awake.

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