Over winter break, I went running for the first time in six weeks. It wasn’t the best of circumstances: for one, it was 9:30 p.m., and for another, I was running on an indoor treadmill. Blame it on the snap decision. I hadn’t run that day and I wasn’t planning to. Truth be told, I still don’t know why I decided to run yesterday. All I know is that I hadn’t broken a sweat in days and I could feel myself turning to stone. Sometimes it is like that for a person. Your legs want to move and your heart wants to burst out of your chest, but you don’t know why except that you have to do it. So, when I found myself on the treadmill with my arms pumping and my legs churning along, it felt like I was doing what I was supposed to. And at the end, when I finished my easy two miles and I felt like I was going to die, I also felt alive. Because finally, I was beating and my heart was breathing and I could finally call myself a runner again.
Running is the most human act. It can be said that the development of bipedalism was the first catalyst of the human age: according to at least one theory, two-legged locomotion was an early adaptation that favored endurance running, allowing our hunter-gatherer ancestors to chase after wild animals for many long miles until the animals grew tired and died.
Millennia later in the ancient Greek town of Olympia, this early evolutionary adaptation was repurposed as a competitive sport. 776 B.C. marked the birth of the ancient Olympics, and with it, the idea of professional running. Only one event existed for the first 13 Olympic games: the stadion, a 600-foot race. Future Olympic games would bring more events and more competitors, but the stadion remained king. To win the stadion, it was said in those long ago times, was to win the entire Olympics.
Looking back at the history of running, it is hard to say there has been much evolution. Of course, runners today have access to better equipment, better nutrition and most importantly, proper clothes — but the premise remains the same. From the millenia-old hunt to the Greek stadion to the modern marathon, in the end there is only the runner and the distance to run. For the aspiring runner, there is nobody to turn to but themselves.
My start as a runner came in middle school. Back in seventh grade, when I tried out, cross country was considered a practical joke. All the best athletes went off to play other sports — football, basketball, baseball — anything but running.
This was and is an eternal truth. The simple fact of the matter is that nobody wants to run. Couple that with the high-level skill required by other sports but more or less eschewed by running, and the result is that cross country acquires all the misfits. The smart kids, the lazy kids, the kids with two left feet.
This was precisely why I had joined, and in retrospect it was also what made me most suited for the sport. While I was never athletic, I was determined, and maybe this was why at my school it was the most unspectacular athletes who became the most successful long-distance runners. Because when you are faced with a lack of talent, the only thing left to do is work hard. And in no other sport is hard work more rewarded than running, which strips the idea of sport down to its bare essentials. It is a linear relationship. Run harder and you will run faster.
I didn’t know any of this back when I showed up to the school track with a pair of running shoes and zero expectations. All I knew was that my best mile time was still a good 30 seconds slower than what I needed to run to qualify. I also knew that I needed to make the team. One way or another, I would resolve the paradox.
I tensed at the starting line. Took a deep breath. Exchanged fistbumps with runners on my left and right.
When the “go!” came, I took off like never before and didn’t look back.
This is how a human being runs:
First, the heel hits the ground. Then we run into controversy, as half the running community throws a fit and declares the act invalid on grounds that it is improper form. Truthfully, the medical literature says little about whether it is better for a runner to heel strike — that is, land with the heel hitting the ground first — or to run with the mid- or fore-foot hitting the ground first. For the sake of argument, we will stick with the heel.
Second is Newton’s third law in action. As the heel exerts force on the ground, the ground exerts the same force on the heel. Much of this force will be absorbed by the lower body. The ankle and knee muscles will dampen the impact, protecting the joints and ensuring that the runner does not crumple like a rag doll.
This allows us to move onto the third step, called mid-stance: the body will be positioned directly above the heel, with the knee slightly bent. From step three we go to step four, where the rest of the foot hits the ground and the body prepares to propel itself forward. Finally, in step five, the body catapults outward, toe pushing against the ground and all leg joints extending.
At the same time that all of this is happening, the other leg is swinging through a series of steps of its own. First the foot leaves the ground; then the leg swings forward; then the foot hits the ground again and we return to steps one through five above. Somewhere in the middle comes the “float phase”: a point where both feet are off the ground and the runner is airborne.
It is this, scientists say, that separates the act of running from walking. It is for this reason that runners will sometimes say that they were “flying” down the final stretch of an especially successful race, or that a particularly fast competitor “flew” right past them. For a moment, the runner is winged Icarus, about to touch the sun when the wax melts and the wings fall off and he is earthbound again.
It is the Icarian dream that propels a runner.
The truth is that I have looked back more times than I can count. It was just three years after I made my middle school cross country team that I decided I hated running.
It was a Monday afternoon, and by this point I had made it to tenth grade. I was an above-average runner by then, but I was quickly sliding. Getting faster was an increasingly difficult challenge, and I was long burnt out from the daily eight milers and headlong sprints. It just took too much work, and not even in a physical sense — what hurt most weren’t my aching calves, but the fact that I wasn’t going any faster. Somehow the linear relationship between hard work and success had been fractured. Or maybe I was the exception.
The run that day started promisingly enough. Five minutes in and I was still feeling good, pumping my arms and keeping my back upright. It was a brilliant blue day and I kept my head on a swivel, looking up and then down and then to the right. There was a creek running alongside the bike path and for a good long moment following it, I thought myself the runner.
When we hit 10 minutes, it became harder to breathe. Suddenly I could feel my pulse in my ears, the tightness in my calves; my back felt sore and I found myself arched upwards, staring toward the sun and nothing in particular.
I shook my head and pushed forwards. My legs refused the order. I steadied my breathing. It felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen and I started to wheeze. One teammate passed me, striding towards the front pack. Then another.
By minute 20, I was at the back of the conga line and moving slower than ever before. There was nobody in sight for hundreds of meters, and at this point, I might as well have ceased to exist. Death by sloth: I had run so slowly that the rest of the world had passed me by.
Run, I told myself.
For whatever reason I couldn’t.
Defining running is a grammatical balancing act. There is a crucial denotative difference between the noun “run” and the verb “run.” Run, noun: an act or spell of running. Run, verb: move at a speed faster than a walk.
The noun form implies intentionality. The verb form doesn’t. The noun form defines the runner as someone who runs solely for the sake of running. The verb defines the runner in terms of the physical process. Running, the verb says, is just like walking, only faster.
We’ll meet the noun a little later, on the other side.
I was walking the other way when my teammates found me. I had been walking for five minutes and by this point, I felt perfectly fine. I was breathing well. My heartrate was close to resting. My legs felt light, barely used. By this point I should’ve been running again.
The team captain passed me first. He drew close for a second — enough for a murmured “good job” — and then he was off again. In cross country that was as much encouragement as I was going to get. Good job. I must’ve heard that phrase fifty times as the rest of my teammates ran past me.
Of course I didn’t blame them. It was what they were expected to say. Besides, what would they have done? Stop the run just for me? That was ridiculous. But I still felt like I was the butt of a joke I didn’t get. Good job. As if: I was walking! I wasn’t even trying to run!
Good job. But — and this was true — I had run for 20 minutes before starting to walk. Good job. And I had done many of these runs and not all of them this bad. Good job. And I had been doing this for four years. Good job. And I was still on the team! Good job. And I was feeling fine — in fact, I was perfect! I wasn’t tired at all!
So at minute 30, I started to jog. Slowly at first, then faster. When I realized that I was still alive and unhurt, I ran faster. And then faster. Suddenly I was going too fast. I was a bowling ball of momentum: my legs just kept cycling and they wouldn’t stop. I would crash if this continued, I realized — into a biker, another runner, physically, metaphorically.
The crash never came. At minute 40, I was cresting. My teammates had all probably finished by now, I knew, but that didn’t matter. I was running, I was running, I was running.
And isn’t that the most beautiful feeling?
This article is the first installment in a serial autobiography centered around running. Full admission: this is not the autobiography of an Olympic-level athlete. For most of my life, I’ve been what most serious runners would consider to be pretty average. And I think that admitting that is okay. What I’m hoping this series can do is capture the everyday poetry of running — the runner’s highs and lows, the racing victories and defeats, the spontaneous semi-religious experiences — and make it accessible for a wider audience. After all, running isn’t just for Olympians (however many there might seem to be at Stanford).
And if you’re ever interested in joining me for a run, you’ll probably find me in the afternoons, warming up in the back lot of Wilbur. Looking forward!